Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Don't mention the war

Expat life in the UK is a funny old thing at times. Most of the time I honestly don't think about it. I feel at home here, having lived a considerable part of my adult life in this city. Sometimes I realise how many people in Glasgow aren't actually from Glasgow, but mostly, everyone is "just" a person to me, there's barely much thought spent on where people were born, how they got to live here and why. In fact, this is what I noted very early on just after arriving here in 1997. People would chat to me and the questions "where are you from" or "what brought you here" would sometimes not even come up in conversation, and if they did, it was much later than what I was used to in the other countries I've spent time in.

Things change mightily though when there's yet another football event on. I've found myself in pubs watching footie when England was playing Germany and it felt like I was surrounded by Germans, and initially I was sure that all these Scots around me must have a Germany granny. They didn't. Next match Germany v Albania and nobody turned up. Germany v Scotland - all those German grannies were forgotten big time (even I shouted for Scotland...). Personally, I feel offended if someone supports the German team just because they want England to lose. I'd like people to support a team because they like it, have an affiliation with it, and not because they happen to play the one team everyone hopes will lose.

On the other hand, having watched enough England v Germany fixes on TV, I'm sick to the bone of the references to 1966 and THE WAR. For eff's sake, it's just football and we're not at war right? And if you continue to use vocabulary as if we're fighting a war on the pitch, I'm starting to share those anti-English football team feelings of those around me. For eff's sake, it's just football and we're not at war right?

Or are we? The discourse around the war is actually interestingly different in the UK compared to Germany. Here, it's about winners and losers, about military strategy and remembrance day. In Germany, it's about liberation and the horror that was the Holocaust. I've never seen myself as a member of a country that lost the war. To my generation, and even my parents' generation, the UK, alongside with the US and France, liberated us from evil, suffering, destruction and hunger. If ever there was a war that had to be fought, it was the one against the Nazis. And to me, it was not a war against Germany, and never will be (the Marshall Plan speaks volumes that it wasn't a war against the people of Germany). In fact, I listened avidly to BFBS, my favourite radio station in Germany, my cousin worked for the US army and we all just loved having the Brits and Americans in the country. So much so we didn't actually want them to leave (they were good for the local economy). (note: things were probably a bit different in East Germany but that's not for me to discuss,) As to feeling responsibility for the Holocaust - the only responsibility I ever felt was to put extra effort in ensuring that this would never happen again, regardless of where.

So the discourse around football matches and any discussion of the war that sees England as the winner and Germany as the loser is more than alien to me. It worries me because it assumes that there is animosity still, revenge that is played out on the football pitch. From Germany's side of the fence, there isn't, and that's the big joke - England commentators making a big fuss about nothing, and I'm trapped in between explaining again and again how a match against England is nothing special to me, the German.  That above all, I'm not at war with anyone. Oh, and I find that Faulty Towers sketch probably funnier than any Brit, because it holds the mirror to the British about their obsession with the war, it is oh so clever and hilarious.

At times though I'm not sure if my interpretation of things comes with the mercy of the "Nachgeborenen" the generation born after the horrors. The generation that has the luxury of being able to claim not to have any responsibility for 7 million people murdered, and many more dead due to war, displacement and famine. My whole family was affected by the war and I never knew my grandfathers, my mother stopped her education to help in the home when her father died due to a war injury. It reduced her options in life and cut her education short when she must have been quite talented. Many friends of our family were displaced and suffered hardship after the war, while our neighbour lost her whole family to the gas chambers.

So I can relate to the people who tell me of their losses. The son who never knew his father because the Germans killed him. I know the same story from the other side. But while I blame Hitler and his madness (rather than the Allied Forces), the son, now the age of my own father, blames the Germans for his loss and his mother's suffering. And for all I try to explain, my argument remains shallow, and there's nothing I can offer to bridge this river. In the end, he who suffered a loss, I feel, has the right to explain that loss for himself and make his choice of blame or responsibility. It's not about whose discourse is right or wrong, better or worse, and it's most certainly not my place to change minds, but to respect his views. Even if it means that I'm the German to him.


Dot said...

That's extremely big-hearted and understanding on your part, but I think there is actually something quite dangerous and that needs to be fought in the temptation to blame the war and its atrocities on the Germans, rather than on a particular historical and political situation in Germany (and in Europe more widely). Ironically, what's wrong with it is exactly the sort of essentialism about national/ethnic character that the Nazis went in for, though on a more trivial level.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing your perspective so honestly. It is refreshing to hear your point of view.
As an American student of German Literature, I often felt that we were swept into the responsibility of the war, having to play the role of the apologist. I sometimes resented that, not only because I am not a German, but because I agree with you that it was a war against the Nazis, not the German people. There is so much more to the German people, the culture, and the history than the atrocities of that war.
At the same time, I've never had the courage to ask a German about his/her perspective. So I thank you again for offering this post.

Medea said...

I am constantly shocked an amazed at the racism
I see in British papers, mostly the sports headlines. It is sad that this passes for wittiness.

Nikkii said...

There are two German boys on a 12 month exchange at my daughters school - they are 16 and 17. When WWII is mentioned in any context (most recently the post war settlement here in the UK and the setup of the welfare state) these boys hang their heads - they lower their eyes. Its not right, their response, and my daughter doesn't understand it. I will share your post with her as it explains so well why these boys should not carry any of the burden they feel obligated to display - the boys need to read your words too but I'm not sure she knows them well enough to raise what is for them quite a difficult subject.

cartside said...

you know what I find sad for the boys or anyone in a school setting in the UK is that Germany ONLY gets mentioned in context of the WWII. I mean, it's a pretty big history theme in German schools, but all British kids learn about Germany is Hitler and the war. When I mention to the kids I work with that I'm German (they don't always guess from my accent), the first question is always, what do you think about Hitler. I would love to just throw the question back, well what do YOU think about him? but it's unfair, it's not their fault. I'm not nationalistic, I'm not proud of my country, but if I'm one thing it's anti-fascist and it's hard having to explain all the time that this is so.



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