A FOOT IN BOTH CAMPS: A German Past For Better And For Worse
PROLOGUE – A Mother From Hitler’s Germany
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning
- Albert Einstein
She sits before me with her legs slung playfully over the armrest of her chair like a little girl. But she is not young; she is in her 100th year and her childhood began before World War I. My mother lives in the most English of environments – an old people’s home in north Oxford. But she is not British; she is German.
She does not quite fit with normal concepts. Nor do I. I was born 30 miles from London and have a British father, but through my mother have a link with Germany, over which a cloud of history still hangs. I see that country through the eyes of both peoples, which is both a gift and a challenge.
Understanding Germany has not been easy. I encountered contradictions. My German aunt wrote scathingly in her memoirs of the British as “the enemy” (they bombed her home). Yet a few years later she warmly welcomed us as “family” (we came to visit). So were we friend or foe? Or both?
I met prejudice. A Viennese living in England told me how an Englishwoman refused to talk to her, 63 years after World War II ended, because of her guttural German accent. In fact, she was a Jew and a victim of Nazi oppression, not a perpetrator. She had won the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for decades of public service in Stoke-on-Trent. She was a friend, not an enemy.
I also had to deal with silence. Nobody wanted to talk much about the past. It was too painful; too awkward; too touchy. I grew up against the background of a fragmented past. I guessed it was dramatic, but large parts were left blank.
I was brought up in England speaking only English at home. I was proud that my father served in the war as a British officer for six of his best years. As a little boy, I crept into the spare room wardrobe to look at the insignia on his uniform. I devoured boy’s war stories in which my compatriots shot down wicked Germans.
Yet I sensed this was not the whole story, all the more so since I soon became intimately familiar with Germany. Scarcely had the dust of war settled than my parents started taking me there on holiday – and I liked it. German cousins took me on long climbs up into the Bavarian Alps and swimming far out in lakes. An uncle found me a holiday job with a firm in Hamburg. If the cousins grew bossy, I relished the friendly tussles that ensued. With its cobbled streets, practical Volkswagens, cigar-smoke, Wurst and tasty beer, I felt at home in Germany.
As a teenager in the 1950s and 1960s, I compared my own country’s economic disintegration and waning prestige with the vigour of a defeated nation starting out again from zero. The British lost an empire, went on strike and devalued the pound. The Germans worked hard, ran smooth railways, played sublime classical music and served cakes with whipped cream. For all this, I never abandoned the knowledge acquired as a little boy that in the greatest conflict of modern times the British were on the side of right and the Germans wrong.
I thus had a foot in both camps. With my compatriots, whose wartime heroes I admired with all my heart as I grew up, including my father, who risked his life for the sake of his country. But also with the homely, forward-looking Germans I got to know, including the odd ex-Nazi or two.
Despite the silences and contradictions, I kept my eyes and ears open, even as a small child. I spotted the gaps in what I was told and picked up hints. I became sceptical of common assumptions. I learned to speak German and studied its literature. I spent time as a journalist in Berlin when radical changes were taking place there. I frequented people who fought, survived and found new paths; people ready to challenge the old suppositions and look beyond national spectrums.
I was fascinated how people made choices, for bad and for good, en masse and as individuals, often confronting difficult dilemmas, following the stream or courageously swimming against it. The choices made over the last century by ordinary Britons and Germans influence the way we think and judge today. But the lessons the two peoples have drawn do not coincide. Having a foot in both camps, I abhor such divergences. My background prompts me to seek a single truth to which both peoples can subscribe, and lessons which are valid for us all.
Sitting now with my mother from Hitler’s Germany, I am with a person who lived through much of this herself. She began life in a world much different from ours. If her parents wanted to go somewhere, they walked or harnessed a horse and cart. To keep warm, they lit wood in a tiled stove. Or rather a servant did, since plenty of cheap labour was available from the land.
When my mother was born in Germany in 1912, Europe was a proud continent. Memories of war were giving way to a belief in progress – economic, social and scientific. Towns were expanding, and flourishing industry was allowing millions to escape from scraping a miserable living from the soil. The new was built on solid foundations of the past. Culture had roots going back for centuries. In attitudes, standards and values, Europe set the tone for the world.
When she was two years old in 1914 and World War I threatened, British scholars wrote a letter to The Times of London protesting against the prospect of fighting with Germany: “We regard Germany as a nation leading the way in the Arts and Sciences, and we have all learned and are learning from German scholars.”[i]
However when my father was born in London barely a year later in 1915, all such solidarity had vanished. On the day of his birth, the number of Killed in Action in The Times outnumbered Births by half. Germans had started using poison gas and my British grandfather, a mild-mannered civil servant, had volunteered to fight them.[ii] < Europe was tearing itself apart.
By the time my parents reached their early 30s, the old Europe was in tatters. Ideologies had ravaged the human basis of its civilisation. Tens of millions of people had been exterminated in two world wars. Others lived on in shame for what they had done themselves, or connived in as collaborators. Europe lost its moral leadership. From 1945, it became the terrain over which outside powers wrestled in their Cold War. Germany and Germans sank to the very lowest rung of respect, and Germans and British were enemies.
My parents, who married on the last day of 1938 after a chance encounter, survived the catastrophes, but thereafter lived under the shadow of this past. Being a German-British couple was awkward. They bestrode a great divide which still exists. But the challenge of surmounting this gap motivated them – and their children – to go beyond prejudice and acrimony.
My mother sits dangling her legs over her chair – with a foot in two centuries. With that background, her life could well have come to naught. Millions of others met violent ends, lost families and suffered humiliation and ruin during this time.
But here sits a survivor, smiling sweetly as her drifting mind alights on a piece of clothing, a colourful drawing, a passing car. She has had her dose of history and, with her mind emptied by extreme old age, she has put the past behind her.
She holds hands with me, her son, and looks into my eyes for an eternity. I look back, also for an eternity. Almost a centenarian, she is slim and graceful again, almost weightless. She is dressed neatly, and the carers have put her hair back in a pony-tail. She tosses her head with a light elegance.
I see a little girl. She is skating, racing over the frozen flood meadows of the river Elbe near Hamburg. Swish, swish, swish. Skating with her elder brother, their dog racing alongside.
I wonder whether she will ever be able to tell me anything any more. Then a sudden flash of lucidity takes us back nearly 100 years as I show her a family album. My mother points to a photograph of a house on the river bank and says: “That’s the window of my bedroom.”
[i] Stürmer, Michael, The German Empire 1871-1919 Phoenix, 2000, p 4
[ii] My grandfather was rejected by the Army because he was too small and spent WWI as an air raid fire warden in London.