The past residing in the present and shaping the future

“It’s the memories,” 98-year old D-Day veteran, John Sleep, told the BBC interviewer, Sophie Raworth on Remembrance Sunday. Dressed in a blue suit decorated with medals and donning a burgundy beret and tie, his wheelchair was parked on Horse Guards Parade in front of the traditional ‘march past’ the Cenotaph. Asked how vividly he could remember it all, he said, “It was yesterday.” Silence followed as his face crumpled in its fight against tears. As for so many veterans, the title of “hero” bestowed on servicemen today feels misplaced. What he and his fellow soldiers did was not heroic, glorious or even brave necessarily. Those are qualities that belong to their friends who didn’t return. They are the real ‘heroes’ and their memories still roam and haunt the minds of the living. 

Memories; PTSD; horror, honour and pride get shaken into potent cocktails of commemoration at this time of year. Last weekend was almost overwhelming in the scale of significant events to be remembered. Don’t get me wrong; I love remembering the past because each time I ‘re-member’ an event, I learn a little more about its relevance to the present and the future. Time became a linear construct through the human need for rationality and order. Yet in reality, or in my experience at least, time refuses to simply line up chronologically. The past and future co-habit each moment of what we call the present.

November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall

This year’s calendar of remembrance started on 9th November, when Europe and beyond celebrated the 30thAnniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and remembered all those who died on the physical and symbolic front line of the Cold War. A bit like with the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers, it seems that everybody can place exactly where they were when it happened. I can recall my Sussex landlady’s unbridled joy as she danced in front of her television clapping her hands as the ‘Ossis’ flooded through the wall into the welcoming, cork-popping arms of West Germans. I remember clapping and grinning with her, careful to disguise my shameful ignorance of just how momentous a moment this was. The Cold War may have been the political backdrop to life back then, but I was still in the dark over the potency of German history… half my family’s history.

Next up was the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, an event that every year both moves me to tears and irritates me in equal measure. I have written about it before but in spite of some deeply kitsch musical contributions – James Blunt, the former army officer with a remarkably high voice and Leona Lewis, former X-Factor winner, who massacred ‘Like a Bridge over Troubled Water’ – I found this year’s festivities generally more sensitive, less triumphal (thank goodness) and more inclusive. They focused on the 75th anniversaries of lesser known, yet no less brutal, battles of 1944, such as Monte Cassino and Rome, and the collaboration and friendship of the British, Commonwealth and Allied armies who fought them. They also marked the 100th anniversary of GCHQ and the vital, albeit largely uncelebrated role of the secret services such as the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park completed by a workforce 76.35% of which were women… 

Ok, women’s forgotten / ignored / unrecognised place in war and history is a blog for another day. It’s the role of pride in all these activities of remembrance that I want to touch on here. Specifically the pride felt for and by family members. Pride can comfort in the face of death. Pride can give meaning to apparent pointlessness. Pride can assure the memory of a person is maintained for generations to come. Pride can overcome some of the horror of war. It can swell the heart and make thoughts soar. It can be a balm on the trauma of loss, which, if unprocessed, can be passed from generation to generation. 

So how is it for the relatives of German soldiers, I wonder? Millions died and yet pride is a tool that cannot be employed to soften the sharp corners of grief or maintain the memory. It’s difficult, I know. But for the sake of generations to come, in order to avoid the transgenerational transmission of unresolved emotions and to understand and most importantly quash the re-emergence of Germany’s Far Right, we need to address the problematic nature of remembering the men and women who were limbs in Hitler’s military body of destruction, but also brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, friends… and grandfathers of ordinary German families. 

John Sleep, our 98-year old veteran, is already putting my challenge into practice. Resting on the chequered blanket draped over his lap and gently held in place by misshapen hands in muddy, black woolen gloves, lies a simply-crafted wooden cross decorated with painted poppies and the word ‘Peace’. “It’s for the Monument of Tolerance,” he explained, “an organisation set up on the German border with all nationalities in it. The idea is to prevent wars,” he continues without the hesitation of his earlier answers. John also ‘does’ the German services. “I’ve got no problem with the Germans,” he declares. (Well that’s nice to hear.) “I think they did me a favour.” (Really??) “They got me a very good pension.” (Ah… ok – slightly disappointed face) But fair enough. He’d had “an argument” with a German tank and it had won.  

I like the ideas behind this Dutch Monument of Tolerance. Unveiled on 8 March 2001, it serves as a reminder of the more than 700 soldiers of 11 nationalities who lost their lives in the Leudal area between 1940 and 1945. I am pleased that at least here German families have an opportunity to bestow a tiny fraction of the recognition other nations can pour over their military family members. So, next Sunday 17th November, on the occasion of Germany’s humble Volkstrauertag – ‘people’s day of mourning’ – I would like to invite you to join me for a tiny minute in thought. A tiny moment in which we try and extend the lines of our famous and treasured poem of Remembrance to include some of Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers and their families. 

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Käthe Kolwitz: Mother with her dead son, Neue Wache, Berlin

I don’t wear a red poppy, not deliberately to make a point, nor out of disrespect – it just isn’t the symbol that captures enough of what, how and to what end I want remember.

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It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.

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

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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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VE Day 70 years on – a time to celebrate victory or a time to also to look more closely at the price of war to women and girls?  

Within the context of my interest in WW2 Remembrance, May offers a welcome break from the misery and darkness. It is indeed a time to celebrate, for on May 8th 1945 Churchill was finally able to announce that the war was over in Europe. The jubilation was naturally boundless and Britain threw the biggest street party the country had ever seen. The Allies had triumphed over the Nazi enemy, Germany had unconditionally surrendered, and it would be the end of death and destruction.

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“Tell your story… until your past stops tearing you apart”

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Tell your story.
Let it nourish you, sustain you and claim you.
Tell your story.
Let it feed you, heal you and release you.
Tell your story.
Let it twist and re-mix your shadowed heart.
Tell your story,
Until your past stops tearing your present apart.

I heard the above words recently on Radio 4’s Spoken Word programme “Writing a new South Africa”. You can hear it here at 14.38 minutes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053bsfm
Spoken aloud, with all the power of someone who knows the potency of the words, it struck me that this is precisely what I have been doing in the past years.

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‘Sorry’ does indeed seem to be the hardest word to say

February 2015 saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a contentious and highly debated element of the British and American war campaign. The deaths of 25,000 civilians and the destruction of the medieval city of Dresden known as the “Jewel of the Elbe” was without doubt one of the low points in the British military strategy.

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On 13th February this year Germany held one of their rare commemorations for their own dead. It started with a service in the re-built Frauenkirche / Church of our Lady and continued later in the streets when up to 10,000 people formed a human chain along Dresden’s riverfront, holding hands to commemorate the dead and call for peace.

With my on-going interest in World War commemorations, this was of course a significant one, for two reasons really. On the one hand it remembers German victims of war and on the other it remembers an event that many people see as a British war crime.

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