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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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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Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015

 

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Today was Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the advancing Soviet army seventy years ago. Today Jews and non-Jews alike were reminded to remember what so many of us have no personal recollection of. Reminded how important it is to remember so that it will never happen again.

Today was also the launch of my talk on German Memorials and Counter Memorials, the second in my trilogy of talks “The other side” about World War II from a German point of view. It was a happy coincidence that King William’s College on the Isle of Man invited me to give this particular talk on this particular day, for it encouraged me and my audience not only to think about the victims of the Nazi policies of annihilation but also about the perpetrators and Germany’s ongoing and thorough process of apology on behalf of them.

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Generation War: Our Mothers, Our Fathers. Does it go far enough?

ImagePeering into the crater of my own family history, Jüterbog 2008

I don’t imagine 7.6 million viewers are watching this series as in Germany last year, but judging by the reviews and conflicting opinions expressed in online discussions, it is nonetheless making waves. Many people find it “brilliant”, with its focus on the personal within the wider historical context (as in Downfall and The Lives of Others). Some find it ‘unlikely’, that the 5 main characters’ paths would cross “as if all of Eastern Europe were no bigger than a park in Berlin”[1] or that they would be so openly friendly with a Jew in 1941 Germany. And some criticize how the drama of the story lines are often cliché and distract from the bigger questions – all hazards of portraying historical characters through a contemporary medium.

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What relationship do we expect young Germans today to have to their country’s past?

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I was very interested in two of the questions I was asked in a recent talk to the sixth formers of a London boy’s school. Both were similar and in response to some statistics I showed about German students’ relationships to their country’s past. And both touched on one of my on-going questions in relation to young Germans today: Do we expect them to feel guilt and shame for what their great grandparents were caught up or directly involved in, or can they now be proud of their country and say with genuine conviction “It has nothing to do with me”?

The statistics from a Zeit Magazine survey of 14-19 year olds revealed, among other things, that:

80% believe remembrance of the Nazi times is important

67% believe it is their generation’s duty to make sure that Nazi Germany and the Holocaust aren’t forgotten

60% said they were ashamed of what Germans did in Nazi times

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Is there a point in still talking about Second World War Germany ?

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I found it almost impossible to write over the summer or to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent flow while the sun shone outside producing the intrepid army of courgettes that now lies liquidized in my freezer. Instead I hung out in Nazi Germany, trying to organise 9 years of research into a 40 minute talk for schools and as yet unknown audiences. It was a process of willing black and white photographs to come to life to reveal what has been lurking in the corners of Germany’s post-war national silence for 50 years. But I also found myself wondering (with regular twangs of self-doubt) what the point is of still talking about this subject? And is it still relevant and important for today’s younger generations of English and Germans to engage with Hitler and the Holocaust, or have Bin Laden & other contemporary despots taken his place as ‘Dr Evil’?

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