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Thursday, 10 May 2012


 A little exercise in 'thinking aloud'

My late mother was born in South Africa. Her father was German and her mother was born in the ‘Cape Colony’ (now part of South Africa) of German parents. Mom understood German, but could not speak it. This was the language her parents used when she or her siblings were not supposed to know what was being said.

Mom studied commercial art in Cape Town before the Second World War (‘WW2’) broke out. During that war, she did something 'hush-hush' for a government department that was tracking shipping movements around the Cape of Good Hope. As the war progressed, she also worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross. It was while she was working for this international organisation that she was able to read reports of what had been going on in the concentration camps in Europe. What she learnt was the basis for her being prejudiced against the Germans: maybe not individuals, but definitely the nation.

It was not surprising that when my parents moved to Europe in the late 1940s, they tended to avoid visiting Germany whenever they took holidays in Europe (remember that until the UK joined the EEC, we 'Brits' regarded Europe as beginning somewhere across the English Channel!).

I remember one holiday in the late 1950s. We went to Noordwijk, a seaside resort on the Dutch coast. Everyday, we used to lay a blanket out on the sands in the morning. And everyday, we had to move it at least once. Noordwijk was popular with German visitors. If my mother heard German being spoken, we had to move out of earshot. She was so aware of, and upset by, recent history that the sound of German, the language of her parents, upset her enough to want to avoid hearing it. 

This avoidance of the Germans had an effect on me. The more that they were avoided, the more intrigued I became. So, when I was old enough to travel alone, I made a trip to Vienna by train, stopping at a number of places in Germany on my way. Almost without exception, I was charmed by everyone that I met. 

On one trip, I stopped for a drink in Regensburg and an elderly man sitting nearby asked me where I was going. When I told him that I was driving to Hungary and made some comment about the good quality of the autobahns, he smiled and told me that this was one of the good things that Hitler gave Germany. My German was not good enough to reply suitably to this man, who had spent ten miserable years as a Soviet prisoner of war. This was one of the only instances of positive nostalgia for the Nazi’s awful regime that I have encountered during my numerous trips to Germany. In general, most Germans, whom I have met, not only recognise readily the hideousness of the misdemeanours of their ancestors but also try to make amends for them. This cannot be said for other Europeans.

The Italians, for example, are ambivalent about their far from perfect past. This is neatly summarised in the refrain of a song: “Oggi siamo tutti partigiani…” (‘today we’re all partisans’). The implication being that yesterday, this was not the case: some of us were fascists then.

In France, a murky aspect of recent history is conveniently kept in the shadows. Between 1940 and 1944, the sleepy spa town of Vichy was the seat of a fascist regime led by the elderly Marshal Pétain, the hero of the Battle of Verdun. We visited the town and were curious to see the Hotel Parc where the quisling government had had its headquarters. We found the building, now an office block, named Le Parc. There was no plaque or anything else attached to it to commemorate its former function. We asked an office worker, who emerged from it, whether we had indeed found the right building. He confirmed that we were not mistaken. When we asked him why there was nothing to indicate the historic significance of the Parc, he shrugged his shoulders and said something like: “On n’est pas fier de ca” (‘It’s nothing to be proud of’), and then continued off to buy his lunch.

Further, when Max Ophul's produced his four hour documentary film about the collaborationist (and anti-Semitic) nature of the Vichy Regime "Le Chagrin et La Pitié (in 1969), it was banned in France until 1981. 

I am sad to relate that here in Britain, we also have selective memories. Ask most people on the street about the Partition of India and its calamitous consequences, and your response will usually be a blank face. As for British concentration camps, which antedated the Nazi German ones by at least three decades, you will probably be greeted with incredulity. Never once did any of my South African family, who condemned both the Nazis and later the Apartheid regime, ever tell me about the British concentration camps in which at least 26,000 innocent Boer women and children perished during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902). I only became aware of this in recent years when I began to start reading about southern African history.

I do not blame my mother at all for wanting to move away from Germans on the beach at Noordwijk in the late 1950s because she knew in vivid detail what some of them might have done, or have been aware of. 

However, I do feel that it is important when criticising others to “cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye” (Luke Ch. 6, Verse 42.)