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.
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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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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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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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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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The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.
Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.
Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.
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