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.
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.
On Monday I was invited to give my talk about Germany’s memorial culture of apology and atonement (read more) at Brighton College as part of their Holocaust Studies Week. One student asked a question being debated by current historians: “When can we let WW2 recede into the past like other episodes of history do?”
Today, 27th January, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, the date that marks the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945. It is the day on which we are asked to remember the 11 million victims killed in the Holocaust – 6 million Jews and 5 million Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, mentally or physically disabled, Roman Catholics, political dissidents, ethnic Poles, Slavs and Ukrainians. All had become victims of the Nazi hatred that deemed them to be “Untermenschen”, literally ‘beneath’ or ‘below’ human; sub-humans. They were killed because they were seen to be a threat to the ideal world image that Hitler and his followers were striving to manifest.
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.
Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.
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.
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.