Remembering Dresden – along side its people – helps in the healing of the past

From 13th-15th February, Dresdeners will be gathering to mark the anniversary of the destruction of their city in 1945. This year, rather than creating their usual human chain to snake through the city in peaceful reflection, it will, like most things in this pandemic, be a largely online affair. A Dresden Trust trustee always attends the event as a gesture of deeply-felt solidarity and reconciliation. This year was to be my year to represent the Trust, but instead we have sent a video of messages to our friends and contacts there. Immediate emails of thanks reveal how deeply moved they have been by this extension of virtual British hands and hearts to them. It was a tiny act on our part, but its value was clearly of significance. 

The last couple of years have seen the 75th anniversaries of many Second World War events: the D-Day landings, VE Day, VJ Day, the liberation of Auschwitz… Each was naturally ‘celebrated’ in technicolour with dignitaries from around the world, for these were some of our nation’s finest hours. Tucked in the shadows of those victories, was the 75th anniversary of the UK and USA bombing of Dresden. As far as I am aware, no British politician attended. Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn even commented on it. It is still a thorn in the side of Britain’s conscience. 

I am fully aware of the contention surrounding the bombing of Dresden. Was the city a legitimate target? Did the Germans deserve it? Was it a war crime? Were Bomber Harris and his Command heroes or part of a campaign that went too far… way too far? In the articles at the bottom of this post you can read up on some of these attitudes, as well as get a picture of the horrors witnessed by a British serviceman held prisoner there. 

Bomber Command Memorial, Green Park, London (2012)

Seventy-six years on, I feel we are totally missing the point if we get tangled up in binary discussions of whether it was right or wrong. Within the context of Hitler and a World War, you can see how it could be considered ‘right’. On that basis, by reading some of my German grandfather’s letters, you can also see how it could have been considered ‘right’ to invade Russia. And by listening to the stories of prisoners, you can also come to understand how they too consider their crimes to have been the ‘right’ thing to have done. Wrongdoing – on an individual or national level – is usually based on thoughts that justify it as being the ‘right’ thing to do. Often this is a reaction designed to redress the wrongdoing of another… and so it goes on. The validity of the reasoning, however, doesn’t automatically make it the right thing to do morally

We are living through extraordinary times of potential change for good. I say ‘potential’ because if we in Britain do not broaden our perspectives on our past in tune with history’s ever-shifting shape, we run the risk of becoming fossilised within it. Nothing can change if we cling to the old. The current statue debate, as provocatively and passionately pursued by Robert Jenrick, our secretary of state for housing, communities and institutions, is an example of the deeply flawed thinking at the core of some of our attitudes to the past. For him, statues represent history itself. Yet they don’t. They represent the values of the time. Both history and values evolve, and debating and adapting to this evolution are important parts of any country’s healthy relationship to its past. What’s more, focusing on statues is a classic example of merely treating the symptom rather than the cause of a problem.

While I don’t believe the removal (or not) of statues is either the real issue or the solution, the government’s evident terror of a ‘revisionist purge’ by ‘town hall militants,’ ‘woke worthies’ and ‘baying mobs’ is revealing. (And insulting to the justifiable requests for a reconsideration of the appropriateness of certain statues in today’s cities). It is the terror, not just of the dismantlement of our statues and heritage, but of our almost purely benign self-image. So great is that fear, that Mr Jenrick is giving himself the personal power to intervene in democratic decisions made by local communities, councils and institutions about the fate of their statues if their decisions don’t adhere to the government’s position. Is that democracy?

Our national self-image and reputation have already been considerably wobbled, if not toppled, in recent years. So I say, bring it on! Why don’t we just go for it? Why don’t we literally ‘come out’ officially and admit: We have… at times… been utter shits. Does that automatically diminish all that we hold dear and celebrate about ourselves? No, not at all. We can be all those good things AS WELL AS being, at times… shits. We can have done and achieved amazing things AS WELL AS having made mistakes, or been on the wrong side of good, or been actively, deliberately bad. We can honour our pilots and soldiers AS WELL AS deeply question the morality of some of our decisions. No country will think less of us… indeed I am sure they will embrace and welcome our vulnerability after so much bullish bluster.

Dresden, February 1945

Until we can shift our position even just a little, Dresden will remain a contentious and unresolved issue. A dark smudge on the national conscience. Whether it was right or wrong, a war crime, an atrocity or a strategic attack, the fact remains that an estimated 25,000 people – primarily women, children, elderly, refugees and POWs – were killed in indescribably ghastly ways, by any standards of warfare. We deliberately designed it to be just so. Could this government, the successors of the instigators of such calculated destruction and loss of life, not also extend a small gesture of thought to the descendants of our victims?

In Mr Jenrick’s argument, “To tear [statues] down is, as the prime minister has said, ‘to lie about our history’.” If we really rely on our statues to tell the truth about our history, then we need to get carving and casting fast. For so far, only truths considered flattering or benign are being told. Nothing of the dark shadows cast by those men on pedestals is included in our statue-version of history. Doesn’t that then make it a lie…?

Past harm left unresolved is a burden that disrupts the present of each generation as it seeks resolution. It adversely shapes attitudes and policies. Let’s be the generation that works through the full truth of our past, creates peace with it and thereby liberates future generations from it.

In my forthcoming TEDx talk on 21st March 2021, I will be explaining How facing the past freed me. You can read more about it here and buy tickets to the event here

Related articles:

The Spectator: Did Britain commit a war crime in Dresden? A conversation Sinclair McKay and A.N. Wilson on the 75th anniversary of the bombing raid

Good Morning Britain 75th anniversary: Dresden bombing survivor Victor Gregg 100 on

Herald Scotland: Dresden 75th anniversary: why Britain must come to terms with its own dark wartime past 

BBC: Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on

The Telegraph: We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past (Robert Jenrick)

The Guardian: It’s not ‘censorship’ to question the statues in our public spaces

Please sign up to my NEWSLETTER to be kept up to date on my forthcoming BOOK on the subject here. To receive my monthly blog by email, press FOLLOW at the top of this page. Or contact me for any enquiries about my TALKS.

Should we be seeing the storming of the U.S. Capitol as Trump’s Kristallnacht?

On Sunday 10thJanuary 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator action hero turned former governor of California, posted a short video on Twitter that went viral. Staring straight into the camera against a backdrop of stars and stripes, the man once known for his body-built body flexed his moral muscles by comparing the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol with the Nazis.

“Wednesday was the Night of Broken Glass right here in the United States,” he said, referring to the horrors of Kristallnacht, the night of 9th/10th November 1938 when Nazis in Germany and Austria smashed the windows of Jewish homes, schools and stores and set fire to the synagogues. “The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol,” he continued. “But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideas we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”

Witnessing, in real time, Trump-incited protestors scale white walls and balconies and swarm into the home of the U.S. Congress was truly shocking. Individually most looked pretty ‘normal’ with their caps, hoodies, beards – or horns – in place of masks. But as a mass emboldened by a collective mission, they felt sinister. A mob stitched together by the blatant, you’d think unbelievable, lies of their leader. Trump’s temper tantrum had turned a corner and stamped on the accelerator to become a genuine threat to life. 

But, though I admire Schwarzenegger for speaking out unequivocally, can you really equate what happened on 6th January with Kristallnacht? Are Trump’s ‘mobsters’ a valid equivalent to the rioting members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) and Hitler Youth? Is Trump an accurate counterpart to Goebbels? And finally, has democracy been shattered in the way Nazis shattered Jewish lives and livelihoods that night? I don’t think so, but I ask genuinely because making such serious comparisons to such a vast audience, albeit diluted by a schmalzy soundtrack and other comforting dollops of Hollywood, carries responsibilities and consequences. If it was America’s Kristallnacht, what should we and the rest of the world be doing about it?

Accurate or exaggerated, Schwarzenegger is certainly more qualified than most to draw such parallels. Born in Austria in 1947, he grew up with and among people who had lived through the Third Reich and Second World War: active cogs in the Nazi killing machine; passive bystanders, looking away but “going along… step-by-step… down the road;” or any of the other shades of innocence or culpability in between. 

What is indisputable in both scenarios – and recent ones here – is the role lies play in leading to things spinning out of control. But it’s intolerance that ultimately fuels these lies. Of course, there’s a healthy form of intolerance, which makes us speak out in the face of ‘wrongness’. But on either side of that, lie two unhealthy extremes: intolerance of anything or anyone that is different to us, ‘other’; and over-tolerance of that which may be familiar, desirable or comfortable to us, but that harms others.

viral image of woman standing up to a far-right protestor

For me, a comparison to Nazi times is more helpful when applied to us… the ordinary people who, back in the 30s and 40s, inadvertently enabled their leaders to carry out murderous plans by doing nothing. Resisting was hard, for it could cost you, or your family, their lives. My mother’s best friend’s family vanished that way. Today, however, we can express a healthy intolerance of what we consider wrong, by resisting the temptation to see the mob as a collective ‘other’ made up of misguided cretins, uneducated loons, neo-fascists, Satan worshippers, conspiracy theorists… Some of them may well be any or all of those things, but they will also all be individuals – fathers, sons, mothers, neighbours – united in believing they are right and on the side of truth and goodness.

Maybe, to prevent re-enactments of Nazi times, we could (or should?) invest the time we spend judging, cursing and dismissing those we see as ‘other’, ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ more wisely; by trying to listen to and understand them instead. That, after all, was what was neglected in the first instance. And people who feel unheard also feel they have to shout the loudest. And by having to shout, they become distorted versions of themselves. That is what we witnessed on Wednesday. It may sound fluffy or impossible and I am not in any way condoning or defending what happened in Washington. I am just trying to avoid becoming inadvertently complicit in deepening the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. For we all know where that can lead. 

You can see some pictures here. Or read a bit more about what happened here.

To honour Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, I urge you to support their positive attitudes to rehabilitation

Sometimes something is reported in the news that inspires an immediate counter-response to the usual political finger-pointing that ensues. When faced with horrific and tragic incidents like the London Bridge attack on Friday 29thNovember, it is all too easy for our knees to jerk us into the simplistic mindsets of wanting to punish, blame and demand, or promise, policies that are ‘tougher on crime.’ After all, two bright young people – 23-year old Saskia Jones and 25-year old Jack Merritt – were killed. What’s more, it was while attending a conference celebrating the five-year anniversary of Learning Together, a prison education initiative from the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, through which students and prisoners learn side-by-side. 

Jack and Saskia were clearly two shining lights whose hearts and talents were directed towards helping those residing in the darkest corners of our society. In words taken from tributes to them: 

“Saskia’s warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offences should have opportunities for rehabilitation… (More here)

“Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog. He was deeply, creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love.” (More here)

The incident is tragic. Our anger is justified. Our desire for action, natural. Our fear of the same thing happening again, heightened… But when political leaders and media outlets effortlessly slip into the amplification of these emotions, there follows a rash of promises and policies often based on inaccuracies or blatant lies, which all too often lead to harmful and unforeseen failures further down the line. I am relieved that over the weekend this process was quickly called out and widely condemned as “beyond disgusting.” And David Merritt, Jack’s father, tweeted: “Don’t use my son’s death, and his colleague’s photos to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance.”

According to his father, “Jack Merritt died doing what he loved, surrounded by people he loved and who loved him…” That knowledge will, I hope, bring him and his family comfort during the dark times ahead. When I worked in prisons and was often, if not daily, in situations where I could have been harmed, I sometimes wondered whether I would stop my work with prisoners if something terrible happened. I was lucky, I wasn’t attacked. But even if I had been, I don’t believe I would have necessarily stopped, for I too loved and believed in what I was doing, in spite of the risk. Just as a fire fighter can love his/her work while knowing they may well get burned, or even die.

Back in the nineties, I came close to falling victim to the dangerous “Sex Beast of Cologne,” as the tabloids labeled the quiet, unassuming man in my art class who, unbeknownst to me, was plotting to take me hostage. His plans failed, but if they hadn’t, I know I would not have wanted macho bravado and knee-jerk reactions to dominate the post-incident discourse. Nor would I necessarily conclude that my way of working had failed or was wrong. It would have devastated me if the prison had closed down or placed guards in my art classes thereby destroying the chances for rehabilitation I was so dedicated to establishing. Of course there are lessons to be learned, but may the right lessons be learned. 

Me teaching ‘The Sex Beast’ in 1996

Over the next days and weeks, as more facts emerge, we’ll hear more simplified explanations of the causes, more tough talk, more blame and more reactive and punitive measures being promised… I beg you not to fall for unashamed political optimisations of this tragic situation such as our prime minister’s “Give me a majority and I’ll keep you safe from terror.” Boris Johnson’s policies on prisons and crime do not make sense. They have long been proven not to work. They will not make you safer. You can see that for yourself here. And here. And here.

I believe the best way to make sense of such seemingly senseless tragedies is to hear and honour what the people who died stood for. So I urge you to heed Jack’s wishes as passed on by his father:

“What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that. Through us all, Jack marches on.

Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.

You can read Dave Merrit’s full article here

And a few of the many other related articles… if you can face the political blame and shame games:

London Bridge attack: Boris Johnson ignores family’s plea not to exploit victims’ deaths

London Bridge victim’s father said his death shouldn’t be used to justify ‘draconian sentences,’ as Conservatives call for tougher punishment

Johnson’s response to London Bridge attack ignores complex reality

Blame game: Johnson and Corbyn clash as political row over London Bridge terrorism continues

Japan’s heartfelt call for peace… but could it be even stronger?

Whose call to peace is stronger? The call made by victims of conflict, or the call made by former perpetrators? That was the question I found myself asking as I wandered Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park earlier this month. 

Memorial Cenotaph
Hiroshima Peace Park
The A-Bomb Dome
The A-Bomb Dome

Japan is unique in so many ways. It’s a fascinating place of extremes and contradictions, where sublime beauty and attention to detail exist beside mass-produced, plastic-wrapped ugliness. I don’t think I have ever been to a place where so many things feel completely alien.

Of course Japan is also unique for being the only country in the world to have been victim not just to one, but two nuclear bombings. And it is very clear from the messages in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that that narrative has played a strong role in defining how Japan sees itself today. Throughout the park were heartfelt messages offering pacifism and reconciliation as a path forward. 

I honestly can’t imagine how anybody could emerge from the Peace Museum’s collection of photographs and preserved artefacts untouched by the epic tragedy. Twisted clocks stopped in their tracks at 8.15am and the charred remains of a lunch box or child’s tricycle serve as illustrations to the deeply moving and disturbing testimonies of eyewitnesses or parents, whose children blistered and bubbled to their deaths. Surely nobody can think atomic warfare is a good idea. 

And yet, as I wandered the park, I found a “but” forming in my mind. Not about the inarguable suffering of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but about the fact that the Japanese were also known for being the aggressors of ruthless cruelty, particularly in the Pacific theatre. For their call for peace to be truly effective, I needed ‘Japan the perpetrator of huge suffering’ to stand hand in hand with ‘Japan the victim’. But this admission of guilt is largely lacking. And maybe it is wrong of me to expect Japan to respond as honestly as Germany in this regard. After all, is it not just responding the same way as all countries… in fact, most perpetrators of crime… well actually, most of us as individuals when it comes to our own misdeeds?

Over the years there have been expressions of remorse, such as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe expressing “deep repentance” for Japan’s actions during World War II at a Joint Session of the United States Congress in 2015. But one could see this through a cynical lens, as a strategic move designed to emphasise Japan’s reconciliation and alliance with the USA: Two former enemies turned staunch allies become leaders in the promotion of free value and the rules of engagement in the international community. Meanwhile, Japanese textbooks focus on the suffering the Japanese public had to endure and gloss over Japan’s own devastating actions as an imperial power. Even when they do acknowledge them, it is again as a victim. They look at Japanese foot soldiers’ suffering in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, ignoring the perspective of the countries colonised or attacked by Japanese forces, like China, Korea and South East Asia.

After my talks on Germany’s culture of apology and atonement, I am often told stories of parents who had fought in WW2 and been able to forgive the Germans… but not the Japanese. Germany was, of course, every bit as cruel albeit in a different way, but it has long held up its national hands in the most unconditional admission of culpability and display of penitence any nation has ever shown towards its own deeds. When people wonder why Japan hasn’t done the same, it could be argued that the answer lies in the reversal of the question: Why has Germany done so much? For Germany is utterly unique in this regard and Japan is merely following the tradition of all other nations around the world. 

The idea of national guilt and the potential need for a nation to apologise is a newish one. And, having been a staunch supporter of apology as a way to forge a new identity, I am actually questioning its importance as a gesture long after the event. True apology is deeply transformative, but when it comes to retrospectively apologising on behalf of a nation, can an apology by people who didn’t do anything to people to whom something wasn’t done have any real effect? So I think my question is now taking the shape of: How can a nation acknowledge its misdeeds and actively dismantle their negative legacy? This could be in relation to slavery, colonialism, war crimes, discrimination… By doing so, we open up the possibility of having dialogues that are less binary than the divisive, fact-based discourses about perpetrators and victims, right or wrong, good or bad etc. and rather focus on the experiences of individuals now; how they have been impacted and what would help them.

So, in answer to my opening question ‘Whose call to peace is stronger?’ I think I would answer, that of the former perpetrator. Because, in order to arrive there, they have had to pass though a deeper process of unflinching honesty, self-reflection, humility and genuine transformation.

Am I the only person who found ‘Darkest Hour’ slightly tedious?

Darkest Hour’s depiction of Churchill in May 1940 is getting standing ovations in cinemas across Britain and America. It will no doubt sweep a mantleshelf of awards into its lap too. Am I the only audience member who was a little bored and slightly sickened by it?

Yes of course, Gary Oldman is truly great as the blatantly alcoholic, often fowl-mouthed, war-mongering Churchill, and the film is beautifully shot and directed etc. etc. And of course winning the war and defeating Hitler was a good and essential thing, something to be celebrated. BUT this black and white, reductionist, at times sentimental, ‘Hero beats Villain’ narrative has now been re-hashed ad nauseam.

fid17838.jpg

Can the British not come up with a more original, nuanced take on the World War Two story?

Read More »

“We write to understand…”

As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.

beevor

Read More »