War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

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Light at the end of the tunnel…

Yesterday I wrote two words that I have frequently thought I would never get to write: THE END. Of course it is not The End by any stretch, but nonetheless this week, for the very first time, I caught sight of a teeny-weeny light at the end of the tunnel; just enough to be able to acknowledge its reality, in writing. I am talking about my book; the book that I have been writing for the past three years and researching for well over ten.

To be honest, I have never known a task so challenging. The idea arose out of my talks to schools and Arts Societies all over the country in which I present the Second World War and its aftermath “through the eyes of an ordinary German family”; my family to be precise. “I had no idea,” is the usual, unanimous response. And here in Britain, we actually don’t. So when audience members started asking me with such regularity “Have you written a book?” or told me in no uncertain terms “You must write a book”, I decided to seize the gauntlet. I’ll just stretch the contents of the talks, I thought naively.

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Am I the only person who found ‘Darkest Hour’ slightly tedious?

Darkest Hour’s depiction of Churchill in May 1940 is getting standing ovations in cinemas across Britain and America. It will no doubt sweep a mantleshelf of awards into its lap too. Am I the only audience member who was a little bored and slightly sickened by it?

Yes of course, Gary Oldman is truly great as the blatantly alcoholic, often fowl-mouthed, war-mongering Churchill, and the film is beautifully shot and directed etc. etc. And of course winning the war and defeating Hitler was a good and essential thing, something to be celebrated. BUT this black and white, reductionist, at times sentimental, ‘Hero beats Villain’ narrative has now been re-hashed ad nauseam.

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Can the British not come up with a more original, nuanced take on the World War Two story?

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“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?

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I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Left right, left right, left right…

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I am on a very long walk – 600km so far – and as my legs go through the motions of left right, left right, left right I find myself thinking about my German grandfather going through the same physical motions as he marched into Russia with his Wehrmacht troops in 1941. I am walking West across the north of Spain on a pilgrimage to the spiritual destination of Santiago de Compostela. He was marching East across Russia to capture the strategically important destination of Moscow.

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