Cycling the Berlin Wall Way… an education, a warning, an inspiration

In the faultless pageantry of Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral, we witnessed one of the things that Britain does really well. Whether you are pro- or anti-monarchy, it was a spectacular display of planning, coordination, ritual, symbolism and attention to detail, as well as a gratitude- and love-filled farewell to the only ‘Her Majesty’ we have known. Impossible though it might sound, I missed most of it!

I was in Berlin experiencing what Germany does really well: remembrance and commemoration of a difficult and painful history. It was, however, not Germany’s intensive and on-going process of coming to terms with its Nazi past that I was focused on. This time, I was with my two siblings cycling the Berlin Wall Way, a continuous bicycle path that follows the former footprint of the 100-mile long Berlin Wall as closely as possible. Taking five days to complete, with added time to explore some of the many poignant locations in the centre, it was a total eye-opener, not least to the very concept of a divided city and country.

Map of West Berlin with the 160km Wall marked in red

The first initially confusing fact to digest is that, contrary to the widely held idea that the Berlin Wall was a north-to-south boundary separating West and East Berlin, in reality the wall went all the way round West Berlin thereby creating a democratic West German island within socialist East Germany. Even with a map, we found ourselves frequently asking: So, are we in the West or the East? the answer to which, I assure you, is rarely as straightforward or obvious as it sounds.

The second tangible shock felt while snaking along its course, was the utter illogic and arbitrariness of this ideological divide – through streets, houses, communities, lakes and woodlands. This randomness would have started as a line drawn on a map by the leaders of the victorious nations – USA’s President Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin of the USSR, Britain’s prime ministers Winston Churchill and then Clement Attlee as well as other leading members of the three delegations present. That’s probably how most of the other contested border lines around the world have originated. To engage with the whole concept of division, not to mention the impact it had on families and friends separated for nearly three decades, is almost impossible. An enormous 360˚panorama entitled THE WALL by artist Jadegar Asisi gave us arguably our most immediate and visceral sense of being in West Berlin looking at and over the wall into the deadly world behind.

From the360˚ panorama THE WALL by Jadegar Asisi

The third challenge was understanding the complex evolution and structure of the wall that was built in three phases, starting overnight on 13th August 1961 as Berliners slept. What began as a barbed wire barrier and the closure of all but 13 of the 81 established crossing points between the Western and Soviet sectors, eventually developed into not one but two concrete walls separated by a corridor of no man’s land known as the ‘death strip’ with mines, raked sand to detect footprints, trip wire machine guns and armed East German guards in watch towers or patrolling on foot with dogs. By 1989, the Wall was lined with 302 watchtowers and more than 136 people had died trying to cross it.

An example of a section of the wall. What we call the Berlin Wall is on the left

Our little trio started our circumnavigation of West Berlin on the famous Glienicker Bridge in Potsdam in the middle of which spies were on a number of occasions exchanged in the dead of night.

Glienicker Bridge

Following a reassuringly well-marked ‘Mauerweg’ route, we soon passed Schloss Cecilienhof, host to the 1945 Potsdam Conference where the division of Berlin and Germany into occupied zones was decided. From there we hugged the shoreline of beautiful lakes, passing the Sacrower Heilandskirche, the church stranded in the controlled border strip and cut off from its congregation.

Heilandskirche, Sacrow, 1961

Heading north, we reached Alexander House, whose history became the subject of the acclaimed book by Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake, and is now a place of education and reconciliation.

Alexander House: The House by the Lake

Staying in different hotels en route at intervals of roughly 30 miles enabled us to gain a sense of the scale of the wall and the extraordinary episode in history that only ended a little over 30 years ago. Sections of the concrete boundary, a double cobbled stripe embedded into the pavement or road surface, information boards with photographs and explanations all punctuated our journey.

Most moving were the memorials telling heartbreaking stories of failed escapes, largely by young twenty-something-year-old men. With the same unflinching honesty for which all German WW2 or Holocaust-related museums and memorials have come to be known, these allowed us to feel the individual human cost of an ideology based on fear and a necessity to keep people in rather than keeping undesirables out, as the East’s ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’ name misleadingly proclaimed.

Continuing along canals and suburbs, we crossed the ‘Bösebrücke,’ the ‘Bad Bridge’ or Bornholm Bridge that made history on the evening of 9th November 1989 through the jubilant scenes of East Germans flooding across to be greeted by their Western “brothers and sisters” with sparkling wine, cheers and hugs while bemused Eastern border guards watched on helplessly. Unlike my former visits to Berlin while researching for my book, it was this joyous energy of liberation that primarily accompanied me on this trip and allowed me to experience the incredible resilience of Berlin’s inhabitants, past and present, and the revival of its worldwide status as a brilliantly creative, thriving city.

The Bornholm Bridge today and 1989 (pictured)

On we cycled, heading south through the beautifully curated but frequently harrowing Mauerpark (Wall Park) that leads into the Bernauer Strasse from which many of the well-known pictures of people jumping out of house windows into tautly held blankets in the West were taken. It was also the street under which various escape tunnels were dug similar to that shown in the 1962 documentary, The Tunnel and including the ‘Tunnel 29’ of the brilliant podcast and book with the same name.

An extended section of the wall and border strip have been preserved as a chilling testimony to its once terrifying presence.

Bernauer Strasse

The Wall then continues through Berlin Mitte past some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks: the Reichstag, the Brandenberg Gates, Under den Linden and the Tiergarten, past Potsdamer Platz and Check Point Charlie and along the boundary of what is now one of Berlin’s most chilling museums – the Topography of Terror – but what once was the location of many of the most sinister ministries of the Nazi regime. Then through graffiti-covered Kreuzberg, over the River Spree and to the longest surviving stretch of the inner wall painted in 1991 by painters from all over the world to form the colourful East Side Gallery.

Eastside Gallery: ‘My God. Help me to survive this deadly love.” From a press photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker painted by by Dmitri Vrubel.

The final 40 miles or so along the southern strip of the wall’s course back to Potsdam was largely rural. A sense of peace replaces the former horror of all that the border came to represent. Long stretches of open fields, avenues of birch trees and an alley of 800 ornamental cherry trees donated by Japanese citizens and a TV station in 1995 “out of joy over the reunification of Germany.”

Finally, the three of us arrived back on the Glienicker Bridge from which we had begun our trip, each a little changed, each with a greater knowledge and understanding of German history and our German roots. Each with different emotional responses but a shared sense of the ultimate triumph of humanity and freedom over inhumane systems of repression.

Back on Glienicker Bridge

Upcoming Events relating to my book – In My Grandfather’s Shadow:

Friday 7th October, 7pm. Ebeneza Presents, Somerset: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here

Sunday 9th October, 4pm. Cuckfield Book Festival: I will be in conversation with Julia Boyd, the best-selling author of Travellers in the Third Reich and A Village in the Third Reich.
More information and tickets here

Wednesday 12th October, 4pm. Mere Literary Festival: In Conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here

Sunday 3rd November, 8.30pm. Stroud Book Festival: In Conversation with Alice Jolly, novelist, playwright and memoirist. More information and tickets here

11.11. ‘Lest we forget…’ But I did. This year I forgot.

For many a year, as regular readers of my blog can attest to, I have acknowledged and written about Armistice Day, Remembrance Sunday and the need to remember. But this year, 11.11. passed me by unnoticed. I was definitely silent at 11am, but not because I was remembering. I was in the depths of Cornwall deeply immersed in the increasingly final (final final x 10) Final Edits of my book.

I feel bad for forgetting, because I do think it’s important that we remember and commemorate. Just listen to the repeat of Radio 4’s 2014 programme Commemoration to hear some of the main reasons we do. But I also find it curious that I did forget. For this dance between remembering and forgetting is a healthy one. I should know. I have been dancing it a long time.

On Thursday 11th November, the only glimpse I caught of a world beyond the war narratives constantly unfolding in words on my laptop screen, was the sound of the shaky-voice of South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk. He had died in Cape Town aged 85, and his office had issued a prerecorded posthumous video apology for the pain caused by his country’s discriminatory system of white rule. On reflection, this collision in time between his apology and our Armistice Day, revealed what, to me, might actually be the essence of why we still need to remember.

“I, without qualification,” said the man who, together with Nelson Mandela, had overseen the end of apartheid, “apologise for the pain and hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in SA.” 

I cannot comment on his speech or his former role in the painful history of his country – you can read a bit about them on some of the links below. But, whatever sceptics and critics say about his motives or timing or whether what he said went far enough, I did feel the power of apology in his words. Genuine apology is that all too often underrated act that can set into motion so much of what we try to achieve through remembrance: restitution, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. For many victims of wrongdoing or harm, such acknowledgement of their pain and a heartfelt apology for it is all they really want.

Of course, on Remembrance Sunday of all days, we first and foremost want to honour and show gratitude to the fallen and to hold their loved ones in our thoughts and hearts. But, if you don’t know any soldiers who have fought, let alone died in contemporary wars, or if you have never met a veteran of the World Wars, as is increasingly the case, it is hard to actually ‘remember’ in more than a slightly abstract way. For many school children, the Second World War exists in a last century time warp, as I found out at one of my recent talks when one of them asked me whose side I had been on! (Really? Have you not listened to a word I have just said? Or do I just look like I am 95-years-old?)

That is why I am wondering if Remembrance could shift some its emphasis on the past, to include more about the present and the future. The act of apology innately requires an understanding of the lessons history can teach us. Embedded within an apology is more than just a hope for ‘Never Again’. A genuine apology is ‘Never Again’ in action. So today, Britain’s Remembrance Sunday, I am not only going to remember the sacrifices and losses of war. I am going to imagine a time when the hands of heartfelt apology are extended between nations both in acknowledgement of past mistakes and in renewed agreement to act in ways that assure such mistakes never happen again.

Links to further reading:

FW de Klerk issues posthumous apology for pain of apartheid

Apology accepted? SA weighs in on FW de Klerk’s final message

FW de Klerk: South Africa’s last white president dies and leaves apology for apartheid

For Some South Africans, de Klerk Missed Chances for True Reconciliation

BBC Radio 4 Something understood: Commemoration

Being inspired to be a ‘light in the darkness’ feels a powerful way to honour Holocaust Memorial Day

When it comes to Remembrance, I cannot think of a more important day to take time to reflect than today – Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945. Eighty or so years lie between us and the horrors that started in Germany and then spread beyond. Most of the survivors of those times are no longer able to bear witness to them. And yet, for many descendents, that past will still be alive shaping their present. It is primarily for them, and all that they carry in their hearts, that I pay such attention to this day.

As readers of my blogs will know, any day of remembrance raises questions in me: what to remember, how to remember it and to what end? I’m always particularly interested in the editing process of our personal, collective and national memories. Which selection of people, events and actions we choose to remember and honour. And which get left out.

Edits of history come about for all sorts of reasons, not least because some memories are too painful… or shameful to re-visit. But what happens to things that happened, but aren’t included in the stories we tell about ourselves? What happens to those awkward truths or people that disrupt more favoured version of events? Obviously politics plays a big role in shaping a country’s historical narrative to support left, right or centre agendas. But I still ask, what happens to the inconvenient truths that get suppressed, denied or banished to the footnotes?

Plans for a Holocaust memorial next to Parliament

I found this recent article by Richard Evans in the New Statesman fascinating: How should we remember the Holocaust? It describes some of the multiple points of view in the on-going debate about the appropriate form, location, size, message and so much more of the proposed Holocaust Memorial and learning centre in the heart of Westminster. It’s complicated. This is exactly the kind of debate Germany has been engaged in almost incessantly since the eighties and that lies behind their extensive culture of ‘counter memorials.’ At one point it was even suggested that perpetual debate on the form of a memorial was possibly the best way to keep the memories alive.

I have many thoughts (obviously!) on what is said in the article, but I will spare you of them here (except one!) in favour of inviting you, on this day, to think about where you stand in relation to Holocaust remembrance. My ‘one’ opinion echoes that of Raphael Wallfisch, a leading international concert cellist whose mother was forced by the SS to play in the infamous women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. He insists that the proposed ‘British Values Learning Centre’ “must reflect clearly and truthfully, the complete and unvarnished truth of Britain’s role before, during and after the Jewish Holocaust…” This request for a fuller picture is echoed by many others in the Jewish community and beyond.

We are witnessing all around the world not only a rise in anti-Semitism, but also eruptions of rage as suppressed, uncomfortable truths surface. Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to re-think how, what and why we remember. The Britain of today needs to rise to this challenge, now more than ever before. Of course, remembering and hearing the stories of the victims is paramount. But if we primarily focus on what Germany did and how the British triumphed over evil, we are missing a vital lesson. Britain also needs to look at, and learn from, what we as a nation didn’t do… but could have done.

 Statue of Sir Nicholas Winton, the “British Schindler” at Maidenhead railway station

This man, Sir Nicholas Winton, could never be accused of not having done enough. Against all odds, he smuggled 669 boys and girls, destined for concentration camps, out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Celebrating his unbelievable bravery and life-saving initiative with candles feels a truly fitting way to mark this day. We can all join in for households across the country are being invited to light a candle at 8pm this evening, as an encouragement to us all to “be the light in the darkness.”

A few more things here:

This 4-minute film is a deeply moving testament: Story of Nicholas Winton, BBC That’s life – Short version

Holocaust Memorial Day: Sir Nicholas Winton’s statue lit up: Article about the above lit-up statue

Article in The Conversation: Plans for UK Holocaust Memorial looked promising, but now debate has stalled

BBC 2: Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel

How should we celebrate VE Day 75 years on? Could it not be Peace in Europe Day rather than Victory?

Friday 8thMay 2020 will be the 75thAnniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was the day when millions of people took to the streets and pubs to celebrate. For those who can remember that time in 1945, the emotions will be particularly poignant. Victory over the German enemy finally brought the promise of peace. That is indeed worthy of celebration. But what should we be doing three quarters of a century on?

VE Day, 1945

On Saturday 2nd May, I was due to be in Belluno on the edge of the Dolomites standing together with a group of total strangers from America and Italy. We had connected on Facebook and had hatched a plan to meet in the area where seventy-five years previously our fathers’, or grandfathers’, paths had crossed, first in war and then in peace. My sister, mother and my two octogenarian German aunts were coming too. 

For me, it had all started fifteen years ago with the discovery of a photograph. I had googled my German grandfather’s name for the first time and the small black and white image that appeared on the screen instantly commanded my full attention. Until then, I had only known my grandfather as a framed photo on my mother’s writing desk. Just a face slightly obscured by the peak of a General’s hat with an iron cross hanging like a choker from a collared neck. He hadn’t moved in forty years. Now he was suddenly standing in front of me, wrapped in a belted, three-quarter length coat trimmed with a double row of perfectly aligned shiny buttons. 

His face is instantly recognisable, his eyes still partially hidden as he talks to two men in baggier uniforms. He looks relaxed, upright. There’s even an air of authority in the way one of the seventy-a-day cigarettes I had often heard about rests between the fingers of his right hand. Reading the caption below the photo, I learn that it is 2nd May, 1945. The soldier on the left is an American Colonel, CO of the 337thInfantry, the other a translator. They are negotiating the handover of German troops and armaments. This is the day of Germany’s unconditional capitulation to the Allies. The moment my grandfather’s war ended and his time as a prisoner began. His experiences in the years that followed as a POW to the British would shape his family’s inner, and outer, worlds.

2nd May, 1945

After years spent disentangling the family roots from the blood-soaked mud of conflict and Germany’s post-war silence, my relatives and I would be travelling to meet the sons of the American 337th Division and the granddaughter of the Colonel in the photograph. They had warmly welcomed me into their group. This 75thanniversary, supported by the Councillor of Culture in Belluno, had little to do with victory or defeat, winners or losers, goodies or baddies. It was about reconciliation. About growing friendships and understanding in the soil of broken grief and lingering pride or devastation. It promised to be a very special occasion… we will try again next year.

Visiting the location in 2007

I can feel I am slightly bracing myself for what will happen on 8thMay. How will Britain mark this historic occasion? Energetic flag-waving aside, will it be much the same as our annual Remembrance Days in November and D-Days in June? Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC says their coverage “will bring households together to remember the past, pay tribute to the Second World War generation, and honour the heroes both then and now.” So yes, judging by that and the day’s schedule, it probably will. 

Starting with a two-minute silence at 11am, a series of sing-alongs, prayers and encounters with veterans will follow, all interwoven with the familiar black and white footage. Then comes an evening of singers and actors performing well-loved songs, poetry and stories until 9pm when the Queen’s pre-recorded message will be broadcasted to close the day. Those who have got this far will probably feel slightly mushy (and possibly quite drunk). Filled with genuine gratitude to those who served, they will feel proud to be British, to be on the side of the victors and the heroic defenders of our freedoms… And that is all fine. Of course it is. But it’s not enough anymore. 

History used to be a matter of consolation or pride, now it is more a matter of warning and learning. As it shifts over time, black and white narratives of good and bad, victory and defeat, perpetrators, victims and heroes no longer hold. The story becomes more nuanced, the divisions more blurred, the lessons more universal. Simply remembering has become empty. Yet as Susan Neiman explains in her excellent book, Learning from the Germans, “We are not hardwired for nuance. Learning to live with ambivalence and to recognise nuance may be the hardest part of growing up.” No country can fully celebrate the triumphs of its history while ignoring the darker moments. So we cannot, nor should we be allowed to rest in our national self-image as the incontestable good guys. Seventy-five years ago, yes, but not today. 

Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum and now of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin notes: “What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.” 

Maybe 75 years on is the right time for us to stop merely re-playing the gore, glory and gratitude of the Second World War and to start reaching beyond our own borders to include the histories and destinies of foreign populations, such as Russia, Poland, China – even Germany, who lost infinitely more and triumphed daily in tinier, but no less important ways. With a general consensus among historians about what happened and why, we can then shift our emphasis onto becoming fully aware that no country is immune from falling into the same abyss as Germany. Its descent happened gradually in full view. Like a frog being slowly brought to boil in a saucepan, most people didn’t notice.

Covid-19 has ushered in a rash of startlingly rapid changes to our laws and freedoms. We are forcibly and necessarily being shaken out of complacency and into the realisation that civilisation as we know it is both fragile and reversible. So more urgently than ever, our World War anniversaries need to be reminders of this and opportunities for learning and growth to inspire collective vigilance against darker forces and a genuine sense of unity across borders.

Let’s see what happens on Friday. If I wave anything, it won’t be a flag for Victory but a white flower for on-going Peace.

Some other views I found interesting:

We Remember World War II Wrong

Why I’ll be a VE Day dodger

German President Frank Steinemeier’s speech 08.05.20

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

_92420409_cenotaph_bbc.jpg

Read More »

What purpose does Holocaust Memorial Day serve for those generations who can’t “remember”?

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?”

6c682644-29fd-46de-9a95-e49714cdda9e.jpg

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.

Read More »