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.
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.
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.
Peering 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” 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.
I found it symbolically pleasing to be planting bulbs as yesterday’s two-minute silence hummed over the radio waves across the UK. Sitting in the quiet sunshine, I started to “remember”, only to immediately bump into the questions: what and who am I remembering? And to what end? After all I have no personal “memories” of the First and Second World Wars, nor even of Iraq or Afghanistan. Relatives yes, but in the World Wars they were on opposite sides.
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’?