We love commemorating our victories and losses… but not our declarations of war it seems?

Could it be that even the British have become weary of commemorating the World Wars? Or was the lack of fanfare around the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War earlier this month down to having a selective national memory? Do we only like to remember the bits where we emerge as clear heroes, victors or victims?

To my surprise, nothing, or very little, happened in this country on 3rd September 2019. Yet, at 11.15am on that day in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a somber broadcast to the nation made from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street, announced with regret that his efforts to ensure peace had failed and that “this country is at war with Germany.” The ensuing conflict lasted six years and cost around 50 million lives.

For Poland this anniversary was obviously a huge deal. Germany’s invasion was the catalyst for Britain’s and France’s declaration of war and few places suffered the same level of death and destruction between 1939 and 1945. It lost about a fifth – that’s six million – of its population including the vast majority of its three million Jewish citizens. Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the Luftwaffe, was the chosen location for forty world leaders and representatives of other countries to gather together for a dawn ceremony on Sunday 1st September at 4am (2am GMT). Polish President Andrzej Duda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, US Vice President Mike Pence were all present. (President Trump cancelled citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian as his reason for basically spending the day on the golf course.) President Putin wasn’t invited. But, why wasn’t our Prime Minister there? I think we sent our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to a subsequent ceremony in Warsaw but…? 

Surely a bit more than just a nod to our role in the unfolding of the most momentous episode in modern history would have been appropriate? Maybe a moment where we press pause on all justifications and humbly reflect on the regrettable escalation of the horrors that our declaration of war unleashed? Or a clearly stated renewed commitment to peace in Europe? Or an informed and respectful acknowledgment of the far greater losses suffered by so many other nations? I recently asked friends how many people they thought died in WW2. “Seven million Soviets? Two million Germans? Two million British?” they guessed. “Actually we have no idea,” they admitted. And they didn’t. Most British people don’t. It was between 20 and 27 million Soviets, 7 million Germans and 450,000 British… that’s including Crown Colonies.

To be fair, Boris Johnson, in a videoed speech that circulated on Twitter, praised the “dogged and unconquerable resistance” Poland displayed during the Second World War and how it “never succumbed to tyranny…” But he also couldn’t help slipping in a quick pat on the UK’s back for standing with Poland “in times of triumph and tragedy.” Hmmmh, you just have to listen to Neil Macgregor’s excellent series on Radio 4 As others see us to realise that this is not quite how Poland sees things. Part of their otherwise generally positive national memory of us is of ‘betrayal’, not once but three times! (This relates to the Katyn massacre, ignoring the plight of Polish Jews and Britain’s role at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when it was decided that Poland would be given to the Soviets.

British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, just rolled out the same old tired stuff about Britain going to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”. (Defending ones values and friends is how all sides justify conflict, however small or large.) He added, “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice. The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.” Aaaagh, they just can’t help themselves, these men! It is always all about usOur heroism, our sacrifice, our justified defence. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to engage with Polish history? The imbalance between what we know about others and what others know about us is embarrassing. Our narrative that “We went to war for Poland” is, for example, in Polish minds “We declared war for Poland” because the much hoped for military support didn’t actually follow. We really need to start embracing a wider-angled view of history! (This podcast is a great start)

For me it was once again the German contribution that lit a way forward for us all. Speaking with typical unreserved apologetic candour, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described how “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fueled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate… My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people – among them millions of Polish citizens – their lives. This war was a German crime… I, along with [Merkel], want to tell all Poles today that we will not forget. We will not forget the wounds that Germans inflicted on Poland. We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.” He then went on, with a bowed head and speaking in both German and Polish, to ask for Polish forgiveness. “I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”  

Wow! I know, this is not new. Germany has been publicly apologising for years, starting back in 1970 with Willy Brandt’s silent ‘Kniefall‘. Nevertheless, can we just pause and reflect a moment. The president of a powerful country holding up his hands in surrender and basically saying: “What we did was shit. We were shits. There are no words to describe just how shit we were and nothing can ever change that.” Just imagine how difficult that is to do. And how different the world would be if more people did that. The power of apology. The power of asking for forgiveness. (Whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness on behalf of another / others is debatable as Bernard Schlink does so well in his book ‘Guilt about the past’. But still…)

I’m glad that in a return speech, President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his presence at the painful anniversary before continuing to rightly denounce Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland as “an act of barbarity” and list other massacres and atrocities on Polish soil. He also drew attention to the genocide and mass murder continuing around the world today, and underlined the importance of international alliances like NATO and the European Union. (The question of further compensation was also raised later on… but you can read a fuller summary of the speeches here.) The pain still lingering between these countries that were so utterly destroyed on so many levels is visceral. As is the will for lasting reconciliation.

As much as I am frustrated and disappointed by our on-going and often unimaginative, inward-looking and lop-sided to the point of ignorant rhetoric on the World Wars, I am also optimistic. Younger generations are asking awkward questions that force a re-evaluation of the dusty, airbrushed pictures of our ‘glorious’ Empire. And the answers they are finding are uncomfortable. Maybe when we stop hiding our misdeeds behind the undisputedly ghastly deeds of the Nazis and the Holocaust and finally acknowledge our own national shadow, when we admit that the whole British Empire was based on the genocide of indigenous people and a forcing of our values on others, maybe then we can be genuinely better in the present and the future. 

Further reading:

https://www.dw.com/en/german-president-asks-for-polish-forgiveness-on-wwii-anniversary/a-50247207

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/09/01/german-president-asks-forgiveness-80th-anniversary-start-second/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/30/truth-is-a-casualty-80-years-after-start-of-second-world-war

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.

‘Shot’ for what you represent

I had a funny experience the other day… not sure if I mean funny-ha-ha or funny as in quite strange. Or maybe it simply made something visible that usually remains disguised or hidden.

I had just arrived at the theatre where I was due to give my talk on German WW2 counter memorials. The woman, who had booked me on the recommendation of several other art societies, greeted me warmly, bought us each a coffee and sat down opposite me in the café.

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Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

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“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

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The Queen’s visit to Germany – “politically motivated” or her gesture of “complete reconciliation”?

queen-belsen-wreat_3355422k

As I started writing this month’s blog this morning, the Queen was visiting Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp for the first time, apparently at her request.

Much has been criticised or mocked about her State visit in the press: the timing – the eve of a summit where David Cameron is expected to begin new negotiations in relation to Britain’s EU membership; her apparently politically-biased speech in which she referred to a division in Europe being “dangerous” and that guarding against it “remains a common endeavour”; the Queen’s unenthusiastic reception of the German president’s gift of a portrait of her as a child on a blue horse with her father; even the reason for her going was apparently to put Angela Merkel, who is often referred to as Queen of Europe, back in her place…!

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