TWENTIETH-CENTURY GERMAN HISTORY REVISITED: HISTORIOGRAPHY AND PERSONAL EXPERIENCE FROM AN ANGLO-GERMAN PERSPECTIVE
- I am born and brought up British. I went to school and university in Britain. But I know Germany through my German mother, memoirs of family members, early visits as child, teenage holidays, working as an intern, serving as Reuters correspondent in East Berlin, and contacts which have continued until now.
- From this dual standpoint, I decided to write a book about Germany, and called it A Foot In Both Camps. It’s based on personal experiences, oral testimony and private memoirs. But I felt I should also check what I learned against what others have written. The conclusions which I drew out of this exercise are the subject of my talk.
- As I started writing, I realised I still had tensions within myself about being both British and German. The two nations had after all fought two major wars against each other. Where do I stand? I felt I had never really addressed this issue. Some of these tensions still linger at a national level, so perhaps we should all try to think a little bit where we stand.
- My German grandfather was the Direktor of the Nobel Dynamitengesellschaft, located on the Elbe at Krümmel, upstream from Hamburg. That is where Nobel actually invented dynamite, and that’s what the factory made. My grandfather was a chemist, from a humble family in Neustrelitz in Mecklenburg. My mother, who is 101 years old and still alive today, living in Oxford, found him charming. He took the children rambling around countryside, identifying wild flowers and mushrooms. She has memories of running wild through nature in the summer, with thunderstorms every evening, and in the winters skating over the frozen flood meadows for mile after mile with her dog. Throughout the First World War, my mother thus was enjoying an idyllic childhood in Germany. Where did my grandfather’s heart really lie? Besides being a kind father, was he also a militarist intent on profiting from the war? I can’t really know. He did expand production at the factory enormously to supply the Germany Army. But when his elder son wanted to become a military cadet, he threatened to withdraw his financial support. The son became a solicitor.
- After the First World War came hyperinflation. Strange though it may seem, the various family memoirs I have access to make scarcely any mention of it. Of course, it did happen. But a relative I read about, who was one year worried that the currency crisis would ruin his clinic, was next year already planning an extension. Sebastian Haffner, son of a respectable middle-class family, later an émigré to England and journalist, wrote that his family managed by buying all their needs for a whole month as soon as the monthly salary came in. Stefan Zweig, the writer, remembered that people in Salzburg survived through mutual self-help and barter. He found that contacts became more human. Edmond de Waal described in The Hare with Amber Eyes how his family’s banking house in Vienna suffered a crash then, but by 1938 it was doing not too badly again. The family still lived in a palace, and owned a handsome collection of art. So hyperinflation was real and disastrous for many, but not for everybody.
- I don’t believe that memories of hyperinflation significantly influence Germans today. For long periods after the Second World War, Germans had a currency which if anything was too strong. Now the euro has been in turmoil, but I sense no concern among ordinary Germans about this. If Germans are wary about making hand-outs to needy European Union partners, it is because they remember how they built up their wealth from nothing after the Second World War. Experience has taught them, rightly or wrongly, that it pays to be thrifty.
- There is scarcely any word in my private sources either of political unrest in 1920s. That too did happen. No doubt about it. But if it is mentioned at all in my family memoirs, it just concerns a few hours trouble in Würzburg, and newspaper reports of a bit more in Munich. Janos Plesch, a well-connected Jewish doctor in Berlin, wrote in his memoirs that the trouble in the capital was nothing much either. So, unrest definitely yes, but not necessarily affecting everybody. I know from reporting 18 months of revolution in Portugal in the 1970s that most people go on living normal lives at such times. As a journalist, I had to go out and look for trouble each day.
- Besides hyperinflation and political unrest, another explanation that has been cited for Hitler’s advent to power is the Depression. It certainly did ravage the German economy, but my grandfather’s Nobel business didn’t suffer complete disaster. The factory had to switch from dynamite to rayon production as a result of the Versailles Treaty, but business had picked up by the mid-1920s. My grandfather travelled to America to do deals with American firms, much like a modern German businessman. The factory had to close in 1929, after his retirement, but in a few years’ time it was working again.
- All these political and economic phenomena undoubtedly occurred, but they are insufficient to explain why Hitler could take power and be supported by many millions of Germans. In other countries, there was also depression. Governments came and went. Politicians proved incapable for a long time of finding solutions, but these nations did not resort to extremists. The U.S. finally introduced a New Deal, which had much the same effects as Hitler’s early economic policies, but it was done without destroying democracy.
- Many Germans understood only too well that the Nazis were dangerous fanatics. Conservative politicians and generals had a number of opportunities to block him. But they lacked the character to cope with a determined foe, never put off by setbacks. On news films, the Nazis somehow look as if they can’t believe their luck.
- If one agrees that the political and economic upsets are not sufficient explanations for Hitler being brought to power, one is left with the only other explanation: that the great mass of German people at that time lost their moral compass. It was a massive failure of moral principles. I am not alone in thinking this. German leaders since the 1970s have said so, and I find it hard to find a modern German who does not concede this too.
- Knowing Germans today, I find it hard to imagine that the large majority of the same nation could feel it right to invade and occupy most of Europe, pillage its wealth, exterminate and torture millions, and force countless others into slave labour, justifying all of this simply by the fact that they were German. Today it seems obvious that it was deeply wrong. I must count some of my relatives among those who went astray.
- However there were exceptions … excerpt from book …
Joachim Fest, who became famous as a post-war biographer of Hitler, had a father who was sacked by the Nazis from a post as a Berlin school-master. As Fest recalled, the father upheld “decency, manners, consideration” and publicly maintained his loyalty to the democratic Weimar Republic, which the Nazis were set on destroying. In this, he departed from the usual political apathy of German intellectuals.
“Etiam si omnes – ego non! – Others may all do this, but not I!” was Fest senior’s motto. He was not prepared to bow to traditional German authority, nor swim with the tide. Ich nicht – not I – remained in the young Joachim’s mind and was the title of the book he wrote about his own life.
The father’s principled stand brought a crisis in the family. The mother pleaded with him to ignore his conscience and join the Nazis so that he could regain his job. He could just pretend allegiance: deception was the way small people traditionally stood up to the powerful.
“We are not small people, not in such questions,” the father retorted. The mother countered that upholding principles only worsened the mounting pressures on their daily lives. Such was the quandary facing many other Germans…
The mother was right to have misgivings. The father never regained his job, lapsed into bitterness, was conscripted into the war at the age of 60, and returned from Soviet captivity a shriveled old man, broken in spirit and scarcely able to hold himself upright. Joachim sympathized with his mother’s pragmatic desire to swing with the tide, but his heart was with the father who in the end was crushed by Nazi tyranny.
Another who stood up to the Nazis was my mother. She was studying arts and crafts at a school for further education in Hamburg. Unlike the Fests, she was no intellectual and was apolitical …
Fest’s father threw out the Hitlerjugend – the Hitler Youth – when they knocked trying to recruit his two sons. He got away with it, as for a time did my mother, who refused to join the Nazis’ equivalent for girls, the Bund Deutscher Mädel.
However the Nazis in my mother’s school found out that she did not take part in Nazi rallies. Somebody denounced her. They gave her an ultimatum: go to the rallies or we throw you out of the school. She left the school rather than bend the knee. From her non-military father and her aloof francophone mother, she had a dose of scepticism rare among Germans. She let her instincts tell her what was right, what was wrong, and what she had to do.
What decided her was Hitler the human being. She could not stand him. She thought he was a wretched little man, coarse and vulgar. While millions of other Germans – and some foreigners – fell under his oratorical spell, she heard just fanatical ranting. While thousands of German women swooned in orgasmic arousal at his rallies, my mother was turned off by Hitler as a man. She did not have to think about Hitler: she knew.
- These were people who had instincts which told them that some moral principles were obvious, unchanging, and not affected by the misguided ideologies of the day. They were rebels who swam against the stream.
- Another example was General Lucius Clay, American Military Governor in Germany. When the Allies reformed the German currency in 1948, creating the DM, American officials complained to Clay that Ludwig Erhard was interfering with their controls on the German economy. Clay called in Erhard and said “I understand you are planning to lift the controls set by the United States authorities.” Erhard responded: “Not true, I have already dismantled them all.” Clay: “My people tell me it will never work.” Erhard: “My people tell me that too.” At which point, Clay shook on it and told him go ahead. Instinct again told him conventional thinking was wrong. Erhard too was ready to stick his neck out at a time when most Germans were keeping low profiles because they were still treated as pariahs.
- When Stalin then blocked land routes to Berlin in retaliation, Clay set up the successful Berlin airlift. Other Americans believed it was impossible and were ready to give in. But Clay’s instinct told him he could get away with it, and he was right.
- He did the same after Americans initially failed to react to the provocative building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. He brought up tanks to stop East German harassments. He told Kennedy “I am not afraid to escalate.” He knew from intelligence reports that America was militarily much stronger than the Soviets, but other American officials did too. Only Clay relied on his gut feeling.
- Mikhail Gorbachev is another example relevant to Germany. He introduced freedom of speech, and began reforming the Soviet economy and making peace with the West. It led to chaos and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as a result, hundreds of millions of people in Germany, Britain and elsewhere have benefited from greater peace, freedom and democracy. I agree with the analysis of a specialist of that period, Professor Archie Brown, of St. Antony’s in Oxford, that Gorbachev’s overriding purpose was to democratise Russian society. There is no rational explanation why a Soviet leader should suddenly decide to do that. Gorbachev was another man who appeared to be acting according to an inner urge.
- Let’s go back to 1936… After having to leave her school, my mother was depressed and did not know what to do with her life. She went to stay with a family friend, a former Professor of Romance Studies at Hamburg University. He had a French wife, had translated the “degenerate” French poet Rimbaud, and was known to be a Judenfreund. He was forced out by the Nazis, and set up a holiday school in a rambling old house in Benediktbeuern in Bavaria. There she met my father who was studying Mod. Langs at Cambridge University, and was over to brush up his German. One thing led to another and she left to join him in England in 1937.
- Soon afterwards came the Munich agreement of 1938. Munich was deeply dishonourable for Britain, but one should perhaps have some understanding for the desire of the British to give peace every possible chance. After the horrors of the First World War, this was not unworthy as such. The main villain at Munich after all was Hitler. Stefan Zweig the writer was deeply impressed by the exhilarating mood in London after Chamberlain declared “peace in our time.” Zweig knew only too well about the realities of Hitler. By then, he was a refugee whose career as a famous author had just been devastated by the Nazis. But he was moved by the British desire for peace. As for my father, he saw not peace, but war coming pretty soon. Munich moved my father to marry my mother. He realised that if he didn’t, she would be interned or forced to return to Germany.
- My father was called up to British Army. My mother gave birth to two sons during the war, I was the second. My father served in Burma even though a fluent German-speaker. My mother was well-treated by English women – she was outspokenly anti-German by that time – but her own mother back in Germany, who also opened her mouth about the Nazis, was mistreated by German women. They daubed slogans on her house and emptied dustbins in her garden.
- I grew up post-war as a small boy devouring comics which glorified noble British pilots shooting down evil German aggressors. The British were calm, the Germans hysterical. Like all my schoolmates, I thought this was great. My father taught German at school, and my mother had it as mother-tongue, but we only spoke English at home.
- That all sounds pretty unforgiving. However Western Allies did not act vindictively after the Second World War. They refrained from imposing punishment and humiliation, as after 1918. This was partly motivated by the desire to resist the Soviet threat to Europe. Germans were needed on the Western side. But it also showed that a lesson had been well learnt. It was better to make peace, rather than prolong war through embittered revenge, as after 1918.
- In 1950, at the age of 6, I set off with my family to meet our German relatives in Nuremberg. As the train slowly trundled across the Rhine bridge at Cologne, I saw acres of blackened ruins. I was quite pleased when my father told me our side had done this.
- I had to put that sentiment aside pretty smartly when I arrived in Nuremberg. My aunts and uncles were hospitable and kind. It was nice to have several cousins to play with. The German economic miracle taking place before my eyes. A Kaufhof was being erected on other side of the Königstrasse, with much hammering and banging to delight for a little boy.
- However I soon picked up some antipathy on the part of my father towards one uncle. Onkel Johannes had belonged to the SA, a Nazi organisation. Only as a doctor with medical duties, and after they had stopped much of their violent rampages, but all the same.
- Reading my aunt’s memoirs many years later, I realise she was upset by events such as Kristallnacht, the pogrom against the Jews in 1938, and her hair-raising experiences in Poland towards the end of the war, but only insofar as they affected her family life. She ended up escaping from Poland by the skin of her teeth, scattering her five children around various shelters in western Germany and finally suffering a miscarriage. She betrays no questioning whether the war that the Germans were waging was just, nor any understanding why the Polish maids in her sequestered house in Poland were becoming more and more insolent. It was just a household problem.
- Onkel Johannes had to be de-Nazified after the war. He was classified as a fellow-traveller, the lowest category of offender. For 18 months he couldn’t exercise his profession as X-ray specialist. Later, others had taken the best posts and he had financial difficulties until end of his professional life. It still rankles with his son Fritz that the father of his best school-friend was a fervent Nazi but got away scot-free.
- I continued with other visits as child and holidays on my own as a teenager with the aunt’s family. I loved my experience of Germany then. I admired how railways ran smoothly, everything worked. I drew unfavourable comparisons with Britain (where the pound was being devalued and the economy was stagnating). Germany struck me as energetic and forward-looking, Britain nostalgic and harking back to the past.
- Around the age of 18 I began to question my mother’s readiness to turn a blind eye to our family’s connections with the Nazis. I felt she was sweeping things under the carpet. Another aunt drove me past the Neuengamme concentration camp – I think she took a turning by mistake – and immediately said she knew nothing of what went on inside. I was not sure I believed her then, and certainly don’t now. I now know that thousands of Neuengamme inmates forced on to a “death march” in 1945 stopped over for several days in her small town of Bergedorf. She must have seen them.
- I realised that my mother, like her sister, focused her values very much on family. She had seen Nazis undermining family values. Sebastian Haffner experienced the same. When he had to go to a Nazi boot camp, he thought he could remain above it all because of his intellectual family background. But towards the end he found himself enjoying it. He realised he was losing his moral integrity, and that was what persuaded him to emigrate to England. In my mother’s mind, the Nazis had lost the war, so family values could return to the fore. She didn’t want to let me attend sex lessons at school – that impinged on the family preserve. She was against the authorities putting fluoride into water. That was too much state. I see her point, but find it overdone. And yes, I did learn about sex, all in good time, and not from my mother.
- As I grew up and started questioning, so did Germans of my generation. Young teachers, journalists and prosecutors in 1960s began prodding Germans of the wartime generation into acknowledging the awful things they had done. It was unpopular, but it succeeded. To press home the point, Auschwitz guards were put on trial and condemned.
- I got a job with Reuters as a trainee journalist doubtless because I spoke fluent German. It was the height of Cold War and Germany was at the centre of it.
- I was sent to East Berlin in 1971. It was a great opportunity. The 4 powers were holding talks on the status of Berlin and the two German states were negotiating a relationship. At a young age, I was covering a top world story.
- At that time I came across Willy Brandt. He was another who swam against the stream. At a time when others were intent on confrontation, he decided to make peace with old foes rather than persist in the Cold War. It was daring and could have been disastrous. But no subsequent West German Chancellors diverged from his Ostpolitik. The picture of Brandt kneeling in atonement at the memorial to the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw flashed around the world. I found it electrifying. He said afterwards he did it spontaneously. I believe him, because he was known to be impetuous by nature.
- The Stasi, the secret police, bugged my flat and office. After 1989, redecorating revealed 35 embedded microphones. Young men who knocked on the door when it was all over invited one of my successors to see the tape-recorders in the adjoining flat. They had been sitting there listening. This was not a surprise. I had been warned before I went there, and personally I was not put out. As a young man, I felt people so far had not been listening to me enough. Now they were, and they were even taking notes!
- In fact, the East Germans welcomed Reuters presence. They considered it a form of recognition, because they couldn’t believe Reuters was not government-controlled. Hardly any states at that time recognised the legitimacy of the East German regime.
- This all started back in 1939, when the Nazis seized funds Reuters was holding in Berlin before the outbreak of the war. The East Germans held on to them. In 1959, Reuters made an agreement with the East Germans to establish an office in East Berlin if they could use the frozen funds. That’s why I was then the only western correspondent with a base in East Berlin.
- This helped in August 1961. The then correspondent bumped into Horst Sindermann (a member of the Communist Central Committee) who warned: “if you plan to go away for the weekend, I suggest you don’t.” On the Saturday evening, he received anonymous call around 11 pm saying “don’t go to bed.” He went down to city border and saw barriers going up. That was how Reuters was first with the news of the Berlin Wall going up.
- Most East Germans, official or otherwise, went out of their way to avoid talking to me, let alone giving me any information. Their doctrine taught them that I was a class enemy. Any divergence was liable to be punished by Stasi threats and reprisals. However all of this was not water-tight. I did get to talk to ordinary people. And some officials clearly were authorised to have contacts with me (by somebody in regime). It was a cat-and-mouse game. I clandestinely brought the manuscript of a new novel by Stefan Heym, the dissident writer, over to West Berlin to send to his Western publisher. The Stasi must have known. I was not searched, nor was I ever harassed. They wanted Reuters to stay.
- One of Reuters German editors in Bonn told me to write about everyday life in East Germany for Reuters German news service. That didn’t seem to be a remarkable piece of advice at the time. But later I realised that West Germans knew very little in practice. I could see most East Germans going about their work as best they could, even though what they produced was of not much value. The West Germans however tended to think they were all either shirkers or would-be freedom-fighters.
- Economic deprivation and a low living standard of living hurt the East Berliners most (more than Stasi oppression, lack of freedom). They knew from Western TV that conditions were much better in the West just over the Wall. They felt the humiliation of poverty. The other thing which particularly upset them was the Wall, since it separated so many families. This angered even those who were otherwise not particularly discontent with the system.
- At the height of Cold War, I was aIready convinced that the system could not last. This contrasted with some Western assessments a few years later that East Germany was in the top 10 world economies. I saw this could not possibly be so. It was clear that the hermetically-sealed economic system of the Soviet bloc was fatally flawed. However what I did not foresee was that finally the Soviet brother would be the weak link.
- After a year, I felt worn down by the militaristic Prussian spirit abroad in East Berlin. Guards slammed jackboots into cobbles. Voiced were raised in anger. Language was all about conflict, fighting, the enemy, and being the organised vanguard of a struggle. I felt I was living among unreconstructed Germans who had learned nothing from the war. Bullet holes pockmarked the façade of the building where I lived, there was a former Gestapo torture centre nearby, and weekend trips were to Oranienburg concentration camp. It was all intriguing, but grim.
- I was then posted to Prague. Czechs were going through tremendous difficulties after the Soviet invasion, but I could immediately make easy contacts with them. They were only too ready to show me how to get around the system. It was a breath of fresh air after East Berlin. I’d arrived in the land of the Good Soldier Schweik.
- After 1990, I asked to see my Stasi files. I received practically nothing. They must have amassed plenty about me. So where were they? Was my case so incredibly hot, that my files were the first to be shredded? Or, more distressingly, did they consider me unimportant, and not bother to keep them? Most probably, they were lost in the chaos after the fall of the Wall. What I did find showed a Stasi major-general was asking around in other Communist states four years after I left East Germany whether they had any evidence that I was working for a Western information agency. Only the Czechs replied in the affirmative. They had spotted something in 1974. By that time, I had been working as an accredited correspondent in Prague for two years. I was indeed working for a Western Information agency. That was Reuters. So it was hardly the most useful piece of intelligence. My Stasi files were still being moved from one dossier to another in 1988, and by then my home town was misspelt and the date of my birth was wrong. The Stasi too had its useless pen-pushers.
- Back in the 1970s, Germans were still trying to come to terms with the war. Joachim Fest published his book “Hitler” in 1973. It was the first biography in German, and in my view still the best. Fest saw Hitler as a guttersnipe from Vienna low-life, dilettante, a failure in nearly everything he tried to do. My mother concurred, though she never read Fest’s book. Hitler’s main quality was outmanoeuvring his opponents – he was an opportunistic street-fighter. He was never suitable to be put in charge of a country. It is to the discredit of Germans that they thought otherwise.
- Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments chief, publicly acknowledged guilt, but not convincingly. Gitta Sereny, a journalist of Jewish Viennese origin, tried psycho-analytical techniques to get Speer and an extermination camp commandant to bring guilt to the surface and make apocalyptic confessions. It didn’t work.
- In Germany, historian Ernst Nolte asserted that Hitler and the Nazis were a reaction to the much greater crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet Communists. This is not borne out by Timothy Snyder’s recent comparative study of the same topic in Bloodlands. Some felt Nolte was making an excuse for Hitler.
- Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, an American Jew, wrote “Hitler’s willing executioners” putting the blame on Germans as a whole. Ordinary Germans, not just Nazis, committed atrocities. He pointed out that only the Germans turned anti-Semitism into mass murder. The Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor described Nazi rule as the logical outcome of centuries of irresponsible German behaviour. Both imply Germans are irredeemably wicked, and this is not borne out by what we can observe today.
- Other well-known British historians focused on Hitler’s personality. Hugh Trevor-Roper saw him as obsessed with Lebensraum and anti-Semitism. Alan Bullock portrayed him as an adventurer driven by a brutal will for power and Ian Kershaw saw him as charismatic in style but basically an “unperson.”
- The American Ron Rosenbaum and the German Claude Lanzmann came to the conclusion one should not seek any rational explanation for Hitler. It implied a justification and importance he did not deserve. He was just evil. My own conclusion is the same. Every society has lethal criminals, but most keep them in prison or far from the levers of power. The question is: why did Germans, including nice members of my family, bring Hitler to power and follow him into a war of aggression?
- Richard von Weizsaecker had the definitive word in an address as West German President in 1985 on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. He said Germans couldn’t pretend they knew nothing of the genocide of the Jews. It was the first time anyone of the highest rank had said this so baldly. He had credibility because he had both fought as a soldier on the Eastern Front and was related to the plotters against Hitler in 1944. It went down well. Since then, no German leader has diverged from this stance. Schroeder and Merkel have both said the same. Merkel this year even said Germans knew what went on in concentration camps such as Dachau, which were not set up to exterminate Jews.
- So Germans have done their mea culpa. Most other nations in Europe, which were drawn into collaboration and sometimes participating in the Holocaust, have not generally been so frank.
- Germans’ war guilt still conditions their attitudes. That’s why they like the European Union. They can exert influence within a transnational framework, without overtly leading and thereby attracting old hostilities. Some people call for German leadership in Europe. For the foreseeable future, I believe Germans will decline it. But they will continue to give financial assistance to other countries, as they did to the Soviet Union and other East European states before 1989. They may not like it, but they will pay out of guilt. History does not go away so quickly.
- Germans are now the pacifists of Europe. War? No thank you. This is the opposite to the British, who are still influenced by the shame of Munich. If a tin-pot dictator sticks his head up, go and fight him. Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Suez, Aden, Oman, Falklands, ex-Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – these are all wars in Britain has fought, and if Parliament had not at the last moment stopped him, Cameron would now also be making war in Syria. Merkel is quite a different personality, typical of modern Germany. Laid back, understated, dumpy – looking like an average Hausfrau – quite the opposite to the aggressive, hysterical manner of Hitler. And very effective.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall showed the new Germans in action. It was a triumph for non-violent protest.
- The rest of us can be quite pleased that the most powerful country in Europe is peaceful, low-key, hard-working, prosperous and ready out of lingering war guilt to help out needy countries. In my view, the UK should be careful about shaking too much at the European structure which holds all this together.
- I have sympathy for my mother’s insistence that, immediately after the war, we should renew contacts with German relatives, even at the price of sweeping uncomfortable facts under the carpet. Her underlying message was: after war should come peace. Peace should be the default state of affairs, so that families can grow up undisturbed, and well-being and wealth can be created not destroyed.
- The East German economy was taken over after reunification by the West Germans. West Germans took the view that East German workers were too incompetent or too lazy to cope with the changes required by privatisation. They pretended the economy was worthless, which was not entirely true. No doubt, in a globalised economy, West Germans were better equipped to succeed. However there was also a fair amount of unseemly asset-stripping. One victim of this was a cereal-processing manufacturer in Wittenberg which held a third of the world market for its machinery. It disappeared, and one third of Wittenberg’s population has since left for the West.
- West Germany poured state aid into East Germany. This helped, and one can see the big improvements in infrastructure. But it didn’t give East Germans confidence they could manage on their own. There was no impetus for East German entrepreneurs to take things into their own hands. This is quite different to the recipe of the German economic miracle of 1948, when Germans largely pulled themselves up by themselves. Those East Germans who have not gone to the West are still somewhat downcast as people. I can immediately recognise them. Time will help, but one only has one life and for some people it will be too late.
- To resolve my unease at having a foot in both camps, I went to Dresden. I had been there in 1970s and was given a lecture by an East German official about how evil the British capitalists were to bomb the city in an act of despicable terror. I felt this was a bit rich, but kept quiet. Then I sensed a wave of sympathy coming over to me from the other Communist journalists in the party – Russians, Poles and Czechs. They too found East German Communists insufferable.
- The debate still goes on whether it was justified deliberately to create a firestorm by targeting old wooden houses in the centre filled with civilians, and in so doing destroy a cultural gem of Europe so late in the war. Over 20,000 were killed. However Germans were still fighting tooth and nail against Allies, doing their best to kill and maim them. I couldn’t forget that one of my British uncles had braved the fear and impossible odds facing British bomber pilots. He was one of the airmen shot down and killed over Germany. In 1945, the war had not yet been brought to an end.
- So I went back to Dresden in 2008 … conclusion of final chapter…
I walked into the rebuilt Frauenkirche in 2008 and felt I was in heaven. Not the heaven which Catholic churches evoke, far above in the skies, but heaven on earth, gloriously shining in the here and now. The interior was ablaze with golden light reflecting off pastel stuccoes. I was not alone. At any time of the day the church is packed with fascinated visitors – eight to nine million people visit Dresden each year. A pastor came to a table in front of the throng and spoke for a few minutes of the spiritual significance of the restored building. There was a brief pause in the bustle and chatter as the message slipped discreetly into their consciousnesses.
Fifteen minutes later I met the pastor at the top of the dome explaining the church to local schoolchildren. He told how Germans started a war which led to the destruction of the church and how the Communists refused to rebuild it because they did not approve of religion. Then he moved on to the present, asking the children to identify the surrounding buildings they saw, old and new. No morbid dwelling on the past, but no punches pulled either.
When I descended towards the exit, my personal moment of truth had come. The visitors’ book invited inscriptions. Should I comment, or pass by, aloof again? If I wrote, should I remark on the building’s extraordinary architectural merit? Should I express pleasure that it was standing again?
All of this missed the point: that my own people had destroyed this deeply moving place of the spirit. People like my own uncle Henry, shot down while trying to blast another German city. Should I regret that he and the other brave young men commemorated in the graveyard of Middleton Stoney in middle England summoned up their courage, did what they were ordered, and died? Should I observe the British custom that to Germans “we don’t mention the war,” because to do so would oblige us to point out that they were to blame?
None of this was adequate. I could not honestly walk out writing nothing, as if I did not care, or felt the victims deserved their fate. If I ever did feel like that, I no longer did. And if the Germans mentioned the war themselves, and acknowledged their responsibility, why should I shirk the issue? It all came down to one question: was I sorry the British did it, and was I prepared to say so?
When my turn came, I wrote in the book: “I am British. I am sorry my people destroyed this church. It should never have happened.”
I walked out relieved. I had taken a stand. I had distanced myself from the excuse that the end justified the means, or that the British had inadvertently become infected with the brutality of the Germans. I felt no less proud of the wartime bravery of my father and uncle, and remained grateful that the British military saw the war through to the end.
But in Dresden, I acknowledged a wrong and offered sympathy to a people who had finally earned it. I made my own gesture of peace after war. My inscription meant that when the balance is finely tipped between the two, as it was in deciding to launch the Dresden raid, I choose peace rather than the British penchant for war…
That evening, I came back to hear a Bach organ concert played beneath the dome – intellectual, down-to-earth music, played amid bright lights. I experienced harmony on earth, as have thousands of others who have felt the spirit of the new Frauenkirche.
I left Dresden early next morning, my task complete, a foot still in both camps, but knowing where I stood.