Remembering Russia’s past as a way to understanding its present

The Remembrance Sunday of 2022 will be one of thankfully few since 1945 that sees another war in Europe raging. As we remember those who lost their lives in past wars, fellow Europeans will be losing theirs in the all too real conflict fighting itself out in Ukraine.

In my last blog I wrote about travelling the Berlin Wall Way, itself a form of 100+ mile-long memorial remembering both a repressive episode in history and those who lost their lives trying to escape it. Well, a little off that route in what was central East Berlin is Treptower Park, the largest Soviet military memorial outside the Soviet Union. Opened on 8th May 1949, it is a 10-hectare cemetery for 7000 of the more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle to take Berlin in the final months of the Second World War and contains the world-famous symbol of the role played by the Soviet Union in destroying National Socialism: the 13-meter towering statue of a Soviet soldier holding a lowered sword over a shattered swastika and cradling a rescued German child in his arm.

The Soviet Warrior Monument built by Yevgeny Vuchetich

To experience this place is to experience a sense of the enormity and profundity of the impact WW2 had on the Soviet / Russian people. For a start it is vast. And the extensive layout is designed to take you through a process of mourning and remembrance to honouring the victors as heroes and liberators. 

‘Heroes and liberators.’

We too use those words in relation to our own soldiers. But how often have we – or do we – actively honour the decisive role the Soviet soldiers played in defeating Nazi Germany? And how often do we include the mind-boggling numbers of Russians murdered or killed in the process (25 million to give a rough/round figure) in our process of remembrance? We don’t really, is the only answer I can find. And yet they were our allies in a war that we, as a nation, have made central to our national identity. Could our slightly introspective leanings and lack of acknowledgment of the Soviet sacrifices and achievement (among many other factors, not least the horrors of the Stalin era) have contributed to the attitudes of subsequent regimes and politics towards the West? Just a question… but one that walking through Treptower Park certainly made me ask.

‘Mother Homeland’

Entering through one of two avenues, the (tiny) visitor is led first to the statue of a grieving “Mother Homeland.” 

From there a promenade lined with weeping birches – incredibly moving witnessing trees seemingly crumpled in grief – you arrive at two sphynx-like kneeling soldiers that act as guardians to the cemetery section below. 

Looking back to the avenue of weeping birches
Looking ahead to the cemetery

Beautifully executed stone reliefs illustrating scenes from the ‘Great Patriotic War’ decorate the sixteen marble sarcophagi flanking the graves, while gold-lettered quotes by J. Stalin, the commander in chief of the Soviet armed forces, underscore the importance of the Communist Party and the Red Army under his leadership. Though clearly outdated, these quotes survived Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalinist rule in 1956 with the subsequent cull of Stalin-statues and effective banning of any mention of his name in public. 

The sarcophagi tell the story of the Second World War in Russia…
…through extraordinary imagery and craftsmanship.
Dedicated to the ‘heroic dying’ of the Russian people

At the very far end, you climb a stepped hill to a mausoleum supporting the aforementioned bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a small German girl.

Turning around to descend, you get an overview of the whole dramatic panorama that reflects the historical narratives and artistic concepts dominant in the Soviet Union under Stalin and to a degree still exist today: monumentality, hero worship, a personality cult, and a claim to exclusivity.

Treptower Park has been and continues to be a frequent venue for commemorative events. Since 1990, with the signing of the German-Soviet treaty on neighbourly relations and the German-Russian agreement on the upkeep of war graves in 1992, the Federal Republic of Germany committed itself to the care, renovation and maintenance of all Soviet military graves and war memorials in Germany. 

The evident meticulousness with which the whole site continues to be maintained (and patrolled by German police) is another of Germany’s visible expressions of understanding and reconciliation that have been extended to the Russian Federation and other countries brutally destroyed in the Third Reich’s expansionist and ideological wake. Does this reaching out in friendship make it easier to understand Angela Merkel’s unpopular (certainly in retrospect) policy relating to the Nord Stream pipeline? And the apparent weakness of Olaf Scholz’s initial reluctance to break Germany’s practice and permit the transfer of lethal weapons to areas of conflict… in this case, to Ukraine?

If the premise of my book is true and unresolved traumas of one generation can impact the lives and behaviour of subsequent generations, then the extreme collective traumas experienced by the Russian people over the past century are part of what we are seeing playing out in the attitudes, politics and actions of Russia today. Trauma responses such as emotional numbness, low self-esteem, acceptance of poverty might go some way to explain the apparent passivity and gullibility of large swathes of the population. Likewise, trauma responses such as shame might be producing the violence, megalomania and greed of those in power. Is this then, by extension of the idea, the natural destiny of all traumatised nations? After all we can see similar dysfunction and violence in Africa, South America and plenty of other nations once brutally colonised.

Psychohistory‘ – a new but exciting term to me that I appear to have already been practicing – seems to offer a way forward in thinking about these things. It combines history with psychology/psychoanalysis and social sciences/humanities to understand the emotional origin of the behavior of individuals, groups and nations, past and present. In other words, the ‘why’ of history.

I don’t have any answers, nor even the right questions yet, just an ever-growing sense of discomfort in simple, black and white narratives of good and bad, right and wrong. And an increasing belief that we are still very far from seeing, let alone comprehending the fuller picture. But we need to become more trauma-informed in all areas of life. For to neglect trauma is to leave people in a state of emotional numbness. And when you don’t feel, you become capable of overriding humanity and care for fellow living beings and life itself.

Further Reading / Viewing: 

These questions are explored more deeply in my book: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Published by Penguin Transworld and Bantam Press in July 2022 and available in most bookshops and the usual online outlets

The brilliant BBC documentary ‘Russia 1985-1999: Traumazone’ by Adam Curtis is made up of multiple film snippets taken in those years. As a fly on the wall experience and from the comfort of an armchair, it doesn’t get much ‘better’ in terms of an experience of Russia. To have lived through those years of extreme deprivation, corruption and hunger must have been little short of appalling.

Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone review – ingenious, essential viewing from Adam Curtis

‘Generations of hurt’: Children and grandchildren of war survivors fear ripple effect of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russia has yet to recover from the trauma of the Stalin era – The Guardian

Becoming aware of the invisible ties that bind us to the past…

It is now just three weeks until the publication of my book, In My Grandfather’s ShadowA week in the stunning, state-of-the-art Penguin Random House studio recording the whole thing for the audio book version has left me feeling more intimately connected to it than before. Like a parent, I have spent years nurturing it into its current shape. Now it is leaving the nest and heading into the big wide world… how exciting is that! 

Most of you will already have an idea of the themes it is likely to address from my blogs. And – spoiler alert – it does. But possibly the main thrust of the book – as stipulated by Penguin Transworld when they took me on – was to focus on the heritability of trauma. It involved ‘a bit’ (read: ‘total mind-fry’) of a re-write. Yet ultimately they were right. Because this idea, that we can inherit psychological wounds from our forebears, is gaining more and more traction.

The process or re-structuring a book…

One of the book’s working titles was ‘Invisible Lines’, which I liked. But ‘line’ is somehow wrong. Even the letters that make up those two words are too straight, too linear. For, while there is obviously a linear logic to the structure and the content, the essence explores hidden cycles and the bits of life that meander or tie themselves in knots. Or that appear unsubstantial, unreal even, when really they are holding the tiller to our lives.  

As I have said before, trauma, guilt and shame abide in the psyches of us all to a greater or lesser degree. They are part of what it is to be human. But frequently they remain unidentified, like bottom dwellers in the sea of our emotions that stir up the mud to cloud our vision and cause havoc with how we see, not only ourselves, but others and the wider world. 

In My Grandfather’s Shadow therefore takes readers on a deep dive into largely unknown or unspoken – until recently – corners of experience. Not just of those who lived through the Second World War, but those who came after. It looks at the impact of war and violence in general, a theme that has gained an unwelcome pertinence in the light – or should I say darkness – of Russia’s war in Ukraine with its horrific reports of rapes, brutal murders, forced transportations that echoe my grandfather’s letters from the eastern front in 1941-2. War is as old as the world. But where the brutality was once confined to the battlefield and soldiers, Ukraine is a salient reminder that modern warfare invariably extends into the homes and lives of civilians. For generations.

It is probably easy to imagine how the extreme traumas of the Holocaust could affect the offspring of survivors as well. Traumatic imprints have long been witnessed in second and third generations. What is less known because it could only be articulated when the non-Jewish German grandchildren of those who lived through the war came of age in their 40s, is that traumatic experiences of any nature, if left unattended or untreated, can seriously disrupt the lives of subsequent generations. The process is variably referred to as ‘transgenerational transmission’ or ‘emotional inheritance.’ Even science is embracing the possibility with its own language: ‘epigenetics.’ (See article

How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children – Scientific American

Whether biological, psychological, genetic or spiritual, the process of transmission is not new. What is new, is our growing awareness of it. And with that awareness comes responsibility. Responsibility to address the cause of the damage, to find ways to resolve or heal it, and then to prevent it. To neglect trauma, particularly in children, and to ignore how it’s effects can linger on for generations is to potentially condemn them to lives of violence, self-harm, substance misuse, depressions, low self-esteem, underachievement or a general sense of something being amiss, all of which are becoming increasingly endemic in our society. It is therefore in everybody’s interest to do this.

This is one of the reasons I took the risk of bearing my soul and writing my book. Because I really hope that parents, teachers, doctors, psychologists, politicians might open their minds to the possibility that behind someone’s problematic behaviour or attitudes, their unemployability, fears or lack of motivation there might lie an unresolved family trauma, wrongdoing or injustice that is seeking resolution through that person without them realising it. It took me five decades to unravel the ties that bound me to the experiences of my immediate forebears. Because nobody knew about it back then.

Well, we do now. Or at least you will do when you have read my book!

In the words of those who have read it:

“Can we as individuals untangle ourselves from a past that binds us to the suffering and deeds of our predecessors?”This profound question forms the basis of this remarkable memoir in which Findlay – granddaughter of Wehrmacht officer, General Karl von Graffen – wrestles the feelings of ‘badness within her’ that has plagued both her mental health and her sense of self for years. It’s a powerful investigation into the individual personal cost that results from wider history, and the ways in which inherited guilt and trauma can leave scars across the generations. A must read… Caroline Sanderson, Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller

This is a moving and powerful memoir that illuminates the extraordinary power of unprocessed trauma as it passes through generations, and how when it is faced it can be healed. Julia Samuel, author of Every Family Has a StoryGrief Works and This Too Shall Pass

An unflinching exploration of shame and pain passed between generations.  This is a powerful and important book which will change the way in which we understand ourselves. Emma Craigie, author

A page turner of the highest calibre! Meticulously researched, searingly honest and beautifully written, this timely book is a salient reminder of how intergenerational relationships connect threads between past and present... This book gives new meaning to the prescient words of psychoanalyst, Roger Woolger: ‘It is the responsibility of the living to heal the dead. Otherwise their unfinished business will continue to play out in our fears, phobias and illnesses.’ Marina Cantacuzino, author and founder of The Forgiveness Project

This is an absolutely extraordinary book. In peeling back the layers of her family history, Angela Findlay reveals a vast, hidden European story that few nations have ever been brave enough to confront. Keith Lowe, author of Savage ContinentThe Fear and the Freedom, and Prisoners of History

A compelling journey through guilt and shame that asks fundamental and painful questions about the extent of a family member’s participation in one of the biggest crimes of the 20th century. Derek Niemann, author of A Nazi in the family

From 14th July, you will be able to purchase In My Grandfather’s Shadow at a bookshop near you such as Waterstones or various online stores .

This total tragedy and injustice cannot be the start of the Third World War

On Wednesday I was writing about ‘feeling the bass beat of impending war… The jungle drums of chest-beating bullies rutting for power, control, land… The thumping of panicked hearts packing, fleeing…’ By Thursday, as the thud of bombs landing on Ukraine came through our radios with shocking reality, such poetic imagery felt utterly misplaced. Now, as the horrors of Putin’s unprovoked advance to Kyiv to ‘de-Nazify’ and ‘decapitate’ the democratic Ukrainian government begin to unfold, the shattering idea that we could be witnessing the beginning of World War III has been gaining momentum. 

This is heart-breaking. So awful. So wrong. So utterly terrifying. My thoughts and heart are with the people of Ukraine.  

Outwardly, in our own tiny orbits, life continues. Just like it did for Franz Kafka when he noted in his diary on the outbreak of the First World War:

August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’

Inwardly I feel sheer dread. 

Having immersed myself for so many years in the past darkness of the Second World War, trying to understand despots, trying to learn the lessons of history, I suddenly find myself emerging into a present filled with similar appalling scenes. And I feel utterly impotent. I think we probably all do. How are we meant to act? What does ‘reacting well’ to this situation look like, both in terms of our leaders and us as individuals? 

I don’t know.

The instinct is to rush to Ukraine’s defence, which, to some degree, various countries have. But for Ukrainians, it is clearly too little too late. Yet to use force risks the unimaginable outcome of a full-on war with Russia. That just cannot happen. I have lived vicariously through a war with Russia in my German grandfather’s letters from the 1941-2 Eastern Front. It is hell on earth. Nothing, surely, can justify risking a return to that. It is reassuring to hear the defence secretary and military authorities now warning the chamber of the extreme danger of putting British boots on the ground; of declaring war on Russia. Please Boris Johnson, don’t see this as an opportune moment to fulfil your wannabe Winston Churchill ambitions. The responsibility on leaders is huge and deadly serious. They need to tread carefully and with emotional maturity. The language is critical. Confronting a ruthless maniac takes skill. 

‘It is more important to understand the butcher than the victim.’ Javier Cercas

I don’t know how it’s done. 

All I do know from a multitude of life’s lessons, is that all sides involved will be feeling they are right. Just like back in the thirties, we in the West see ourselves to be indisputably on the side of good. We are protecting democracy. Our ways of life are the right ways. But while that all may be true, if I have learnt anything about the psychology of conflict and dictators, I feel pretty sure that that is precisely what Putin is also feeling. Because wars and violence are ultimately created out of a sense of threat to one’s position, values, people and way of life. Out of a fear of loss. Power-hungry dictators, such as Hitler and Stalin, were blind to the suffering caused in their pursuit of visions of a world that in their eyes was ‘good’. Same for criminals. With both sides believing they are right, nothing will persuade or force them to think otherwise. 

 ‘No one who either knows or believes that there is another course of action better than the one he is following will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better.‘ Plato

It would be counter-productive to shame Putin into believing there is no way back without losing face. 

To do nothing would be an unforgivable betrayal of the Ukrainian people.   

To meet Russian aggression with further aggression would quite possibly provoke a Third World War.

That cannot happen. 

For those who have never experienced war first-hand or occupied themselves with the World Wars, it is almost impossible to imagine their sheer horror. For those with eyes trained on a victorious outcome, it can be easy to overlook the devastating impact on individuals. And not only the inevitable loss of life. What we have been witnessing in Ukraine – civilians signing up or arming themselves with guns and Molotov cocktails, getting stuck in traffic jams, huddling in makeshift bomb shelters – are the fight, flight, freeze responses of trauma. The terror of impending mass destruction, injury, homelessness, hunger and life-long psychological damage for generations to come. Just watch ‘Flee’, the brilliant new Danish animation that is well positioned to clean up at the Oscars, to witness the appalling cost of war on one child, one family. One among millions of others forced to flee their homes.

Still from the film ‘Flee’

Is Margaret MacMillan right when she said in her 2019 Reith Lecture:

 “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organized themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others.  Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

If we accept, just for a moment that war is an inevitable part of our world and as integral to being human as, say, creating art, how should we react to it? 

I just can’t believe we are here… again. 

How do you reason with a man like Putin, who genuinely believes his demands and actions are reasonable?  How do we prevent this conflict from escalating into another deadly world war? How can we prevent our own rage and sense of injustice spilling over into a call for retaliation?

For now, I will attempt to keep my heart filled with love and courage to send to the people of Ukraine and those in Russia who do not want this war. To those fighting, resisting, defending. I pray that the whole world finds its way through this crisis to peace. 

Related links:

BBC series Rise of the Nazis: Dictators at War 

Trailer for ‘Flee’

Two very different military withdrawals…

In the light – or should I say pitch darkness – of the horrors and tragedies that have been unfolding in Afghanistan as the USA, UK and other countries withdraw, my recent visit to the National Army Museum in London felt strangely apposite. One of its current exhibitions – Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945 – covers the final withdrawal of British troops from Germany in 2020. It traces Britain’s 75-year military presence there, first as occupiers and administrators of a destroyed country, then as reluctant but necessary Allies confronted with escalating Cold War tensions, and on to its current relationship as friends. 

I can’t stop thinking about what is happening in Afghanistan. It feels beyond catastrophic, beyond imagination, but of course, I am in no position to comment. Except maybe to point out the contrast of our withdrawal from Germany, which passed effortlessly and without incident. Presumably that is the mark of an original mission reaching its intended positive conclusion and outcome, though I have to say I was surprised when I first learned that we even still had a presence there! A second exhibition in the foyer of the museum makes one realise, however, just how alive that period still is in many people’s lives. 

Long Shadows of War has been created by the German photographer, Susanne Hakuba. Susanne lives in England and has been a friend ever since she invited me to participate in her brave and on-going examination of how the Third Reich still casts shadows on Germany, its people and her own life. Any person who is familiar with my blogs or talks will be all too aware of how much Germany has already done to deal with its Nazi heritage at a national and political level. But this exhibition shows how the personal level can be another story, quite literally. 

Susanne’s haunting photographs, quotes and poems draw on the testaments of others to reveal the differing attitudes between three generations: those who witnessed the times, those who lived in their parent’s and grandparent’s trauma- or guilt-filled silences immediately after the war, and those who carried the heavy contents of that silence with its ensuing emotional absence without realising it.

Susanne Hakuba: Two Kriegskinder / War children: “…Feelings? I didn’t have time for that.”

The third generation – born in the sixties and seventies – have been gradually and carefully breaking through the silence to discover what lies behind familiar narratives that don’t quite add up. It’s no longer about uncovering the facts, many of which will never be known or knowable; it is more about the emotions attached to them. For it is these that coloured and flavoured most German childhoods, often leading to inexplicable symptoms, confusions about identity and self-destructive behaviours as they advanced towards adulthood.

This phenomenon is called inter- or transgenerational trauma. It describes the transmission of unresolved issues from one generation to the next; a form of emotional inheritance seeking resolution. I talk about it in my TEDx talk and it is widely acknowledged in Germany. For all sorts of reasons, however, we don’t know much about this in Britain. But seeing the interest visitors to the exhibition display, Susanne is hopeful – as am I – that her/our work can be a catalyst for people – of any nationality or history – to look at the gaps in their own family stories in order to discover what is lurking there unrecognised, unspoken but potent. 

What is happening in Afghanistan will leave many people traumatised and many others guilty. The impact of both so often gets buried in silent withdrawal as people try to cope. But suppressed traumas and wrongdoings can lead to misery, dysfunction and, all too often, to devastating actions and crimes. I sincerely hope that growing coverage of this subject through exhibitions, talks, books and the media will raise our collective awareness of how important it is to acknowledge and treat trauma before it is allowed to fester and pollute the lives of generations to come. As Afghanistan will no doubt teach us, it is in everybody’s interests to do so.

 

Some further reading:

British army hands back last headquarters in Germany

Parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. Studies in mice show how

Can We Really Inherit Trauma?

Fearful Memories Passed Down to Mouse Descendants

What Is Generational Trauma? Here’s How Experts Explain It 

The time to remember that ‘to the world he was a soldier, to us he was the world’

‘Tis the season to remember… and yet, this year, for the first time, I forgot. Remembrance Sunday was almost over before I suddenly remembered to remember. 

Locked down at home, I was definitely silent. But maybe the official 2-minute silence at 11am passed me by because in my talks and blogs I am frequently remembering. In fact, ‘looking back’ has become part of my identity, my expertise even. So much so that I have been selected, as one of nine speakers, to do a Tedx Talk on the subject: Facing the past in order to create a fairer future.’ It’s an exciting opportunity though unfortunately lockdown has forced the proposed date of 29th November to be postponed until the spring. It will happen though… like so many other things in this disorientating Covid world in which we are currently immersed. 

In the meantime, if you haven’t attended my talk on How Germany Remembers and would like to, there’s a chance to hear it online on Friday 13th November at 11.30am. It is being hosted by the National Army Museum in London where I spoke last year. You can read more about it here and you can register for free here.

But back to remembering… or forgetting in my case. Maybe there are some of us who feel a little tired of remembering. Or maybe it’s the national narrative we tell ourselves each year, that is tiring. This is one of the points made in Radio 4’s ‘Our Sacred Story’ in which Alex Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, suggests that the Second World War is both our modern sacred narrative as well as the shaper of our collective sense of what constitutes good and evil. 

This summer we celebrated the 75thanniversaries of VE and VJ Day. In fact, we’ve done loads of national remembering over the past years. So aside from Remembrance fatigue, I’m wondering if Covid’s restrictive squeeze on lungs, lives and events alike, is also impacting what and how we remember. Lockdown has been turning mindsets inwards, shifting focus and values onto all that is immediately around us – family, gardens, quiet streets or empty skies. Maybe this new way of being is merging effortlessly with the existing sub-stream of thought that strives for essence rather than glitzy, sparkling veneer. 

Looking at the BBC coverage of Remembrance Sunday, it is clear that even our mainstream institutions of commemoration are being forcibly stripped of excess. I salute the efforts of all involved in trying to evoke the all-too familiar rituals, yet nothing could distract from the extraordinary visuals of sparsity. Watching the morning ceremonies at the Cenotaph, one could be forgiven for not knowing where one was. The eerily still Whitehall dotted with a few socially-distanced, poppy- and wreath-bearing dignitaries resembled a set construction of a movie whose budget couldn’t stretch to more actors. And in Westminster Abbey, the Queen, bless her, hatted and masked up in black, couldn’t help but look a little like Darth Vader as she gently touched the white myrtle wreath that was then laid by a masked serviceman upon the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. 

I couldn’t sit through the empty-seated Royal Albert Hall festivities that in the past have both grated and made me cry against my will. Instead, I sought the essence of remembrance in other areas. I soon found it in the podcast, We have ways of making you think. In their Episode 203 on Remembrance, historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray were in conversation with Glyn Prysor, former historian of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Between them they brought to life the history of the ubiquitous white headstones that fill acres and acres of land both here and on the continent. 

Set up in 1917 while World War One was still raging, the process of burying in the region of a million war dead, half of whose remains were missing, demanded a very new way of thinking. In a departure from the Victorian hierarchy of worthiness that extended into death and resulted in the common man just being ‘bunged’ into a mass grave, the Commission made a move towards inclusion. It wanted to evoke the sense that everyone had contributed to the war and everyone was equal in death. The outcome was a uniform design for all headstones that would make no distinction between wealthy and poor. This was of course deeply controversial. Individuality would only be marked through the listing of name, rank, unit, regimental badge and date of death. An appropriate religious symbol could also be added, or not. And a space at the bottom was dedicated to personal messages from family members, some of whom would never be able to travel to the continent to visit the graves of their loved ones. 

Covid has been highlighting the need for a similar leveling process across our hierarchies of wealth, fairness and opportunity. As in war, it is the personal losses and tragedies that will far surpass and long outlive the victories or shenanigans of the politics. In that vein, I found the essence of remembrance in an inscription spotted on a war grave in Bayeux:

Into the mosaic of victory, our most precious piece was laid.

Dresden… a spectacular phoenix rising from the ashes

My recent trip to Dresden and Leipzig reminded me what wonderful places German cities can be. Particularly in summer when the music of high quality buskers wafts through squares lined with outdoor cafés offering chilled Grauburgunder and Pfefferling (chantarelle) dishes with white asparagus; when young people ride on rickety city bikes across the cobbles, hands dangling by their sides. It’s only the ever-present cranes punctuating the skyline of sloping roofs, or the gaping, pulled teeth-like gaps between buildings that remind you that all you are looking at was, in the not so distant past, rubble; grey, gaunt, improbably upright façades standing sentry among collapsed homes and destroyed families. 

I have to admit, before I went to Dresden I had questions about travelling to a reconstructed, rather than original, Baroque city. I questioned whether destroyed buildings should be re-built and replicated or whether their ‘death’ should be seen as an opportunity for something new. Or whether a 21stcentury appearance of 18th century architecture still constitutes an historic monument. My first sighting of the city’s famous profile of domes and spires lining the river and my subsequent face-to-face meeting with the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ quickly rendered those questions superfluous. Dresden is simply beautiful.

Of particular interest to me as a newly elected trustee to the London-based Dresden Trust, was the city’s most historic and well-loved landmark, the Frauenkirche. Its bombed remains had been left untouched by the communist regime of East Germany for decades, both as a symbol against war and a memorial for those 25,000 killed in the notorious 2-day aerial bombing attack by Britain’s RAF and the USA. 

After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1990 reunification of Germany, the future of the Frauenkirche became a focus of the widespread national debates and philosophical soul-searching still continuing to this day. 1993 then launched seventeen months of clearing, documenting and organising the 23,000 cubic meter mound of rubble with characteristic German thoroughness. 8,390 interior and exterior façade stones and ceilings were saved as well as over 90,000 back up blocks and other features. By 2005 – to cut a much longer story short – the church re-opened. Crowned by a shining golden orb – donated by the Dresden Trust as a heartfelt gesture of reconciliation from the people of Britain and created by a team of silversmiths headed by the son of a Bomber Command pilot – the church now proudly dominates the bustling Neumarkt once again, almost a literal phoenix raised from the ashes. 

The golden orb donated by The Dresden Trust

In a former industrial area a few miles away is the antithesis of the Frauenkirche’s resurrection. Housed in an empty gas container, the huge 360˚ digitally processed panorama of the bombed city by the Berlin-based artist, Yadegar Asisi, is almost as mind-blowing. Visitors enter the cylindrical space at ground level but can climb a centrally erected scaffold tower to view the city from various levels. Against a backdrop of music, lights dim or flicker to emulate night or bombs as people stand in silence staring at the abyss of destruction.

Dresden, 1945. A section of the 360˚ Panometer by Yadegar Asisi

Looking at this seems to viscerally insult ones humanity, possibly all the more so because, though we have all clocked the pointlessness of war many times over, “This time, we were the pigs”. In that devastating space, the guest book entry of an American visitor resounds with rare indisputability. This was ‘us’. Whatever our justifications for bombing Dresden – and there are always apparent justifications for aggression, just talk to violent offenders, listen to politicians – we designed bombs to have the maximum impact, not just on buildings or military targets but on civilians. It was an act that rightly continues to needle our ‘heroic victors’ narratives and shake the moral high ground we want to, and often do, occupy. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Dresden. 

Left: one of two original walls left standing

Nearly seventy-five years on, only the dark sections of the original Frauenkirche and the blackened stones that polka-dot the soft sandstone exterior like plasters bear witness to the horrors of those two fateful nights in February 1945. As normal life buzzes at its feet, the church, often filled with music, stands defiantly, a profoundly moving symbol of peace and reconciliation and a testament to the sheer bravery, optimism and determination of Dresdeners.