A few months ago I watched a three part BBC documentary called “Berlin 1945”.
It was difficult to watch. The year 1945 in Berlin…archive footage and quotes from the diaries of ordinary Berliners.
By January 1945, the Nazis have already lost the war and the Red Army are moving closer to Berlin. Refugees are telling harrowing stories of Soviet atrocities.
Of course the Germans had already committed atrocities in Poland and the Soviet Union. The war on the Eastern Front was brutal.
By April and May of 1945, the Berliners knew the full truth. Horror was delivered often disproportionately to women.
There was a fatalism.
Unprotected women, often very young raped and humiliated. Their possessions plundered. Many considered a “Russian on your belly as better than an American (bomb) on your head”. Probably one of the saddest things I have ever heard.
Harrowing stories of gang rape. Rape is often a weapon of war. And the aftermath of rape is always trauma and often disease and often abortion or pregnancy.
Of course the Russians did this on an industrial scale. While individual soldiers in the western armies may not have committed many rapes, they knew the fortunes and spoils of war. Exploitation of the vulnerable. Many of the men who landed on the beaches in Normandy reached western Germany.
Cigarettes, candy bars, stockings, canned food became currency of the conquerers. The human body. became the currency of the conquered.
It is easy to think in terms of the Russians being “savages”. A woman in Berlin, ironically a socialist, writes in her diary of her relief at the first night an Uzbek was not in her bed sheets. And easy to think that the Americans, British and French were somehow better.
The footage of ordinary Berliners forced to work for the Allies. The meagre rations. Odinary Germans brought to the concentration camps to look on the horror that they had supported or been passive about or did not know is horrifying. Prim and proper middle class Germans carrying dead Jewish and other bodies to mass graves.
Did the Germans deserve it? Well they had not all been at Nazi rallies. They had not all been anti-semetic. De-Nazification dismantled the mindset.
The rapes, the exploitation, the cruelty was the punishment of an entire Nation. Victors Justice. Is it too cynical to say the biggest war crime is Defeat.
Arguably, it was short-lived. The leading Nazis were executed. Germany was divided. And the Berlin Airlift was the first step in rehabilitating the (good) Western Germans.
Reconciliation? Well…maybe. But the Reconciliation process began in the horror of Berlin in April and May of 1945. I make the point that Reconciliation begins in Victory and Defeat.
I was born in 1952 and into a world of (good) German Federal Republic and (bad) German Democratic Republic. I became aware of the two Germanys around 1961. I saw the BBC News as the Berlin Wall was being built. I saw President Kennedy deliver that “I Am a Berliner” speech in 1963.
The good guys….Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl, Schmidt in the West. The bad guy …Ulbricht in the East.
But I was born in BELFAST in 1952. I had no skin in the fight in 1939-45. No relatives.
But if I had been born in BERLIN in 1952.
Yes if I had been born in 1952 in Berlin, my mother may have been an ordinary German hausfrau who may not have suffered under the Russians but would surely have known some women who did. My father (hopefully a social democrat) might well have been captured at the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and repatriated to Germany a few years later.
But what of the others. Maybe my cousin Anna had been raped in 1945. Maybe we did not talk about Auntie Helga who brought shame on the family post-war.
Maybe Uncle Siegfried who was a fervent Nazi died on the Eastern Front. Maybe cousin Bernhardt, was only 16 when he died in street fighting. And so on.
But it seems……..Collective Guilt, Collective Shame, Collective Grief, Collective Amnesia.
Do crimes committed by German Nazis such as the Holocaust trump crimes committed on the German people (the bombing of Dresden for example). Most people outside Germany would say there is a difference in scale, a difference in nature. But I suspect people within Germany might say that there is no difference. And hard not to think that a German boy born in 1952 would not take it all personally.
Maybe…not taking things personally is a requirement of Reconciliation.
We are all familiar with overly apologetic Germans…usually young people distancing themselves from their nations and indeed family history. Harry Enfield has parodied this.
I am Irish so we know a thing or two about Defeat.
I would have been a native Gael in the 16th century during the Tudor Conquest.
I would have been a Catholic in the 1640s when Oliver Cromwell came invading. Defeat.
In the 17th century I would have been a Jacobite during the Hanoverian usurpation. Defeat.
In 1798. I would have been a peasant on Vinegar Hill. Defeat.
In the 19th century, I would have been a Famine victim and a nationalist. Defeat
In 1916, I would have been a Republican at the General Post Office. Defeat? For Nordies…yes.
Well of course I was none of those things but in terms of History that is who I am.
But I was actually alive in Norn Iron from from 1952 to date. Conflict ends in settlement . But of course in 1998, we had the Good Friday Agreement……a settlement without an end to a conflict.
Two things. First I do not feel a need to apologise for defeats in Tudor times, Cromwellian times, or in British Empire terms. Nor do I feel apologetic for something I did 1969-1998. Bad things certainly in my name but to quote Sister Michael (Derry Girls), “the only thing you need to know about the whole Civil War thing is that we are the goodies.
The German “reconciliation” was based on defeat and humiliation.
Simply put academic conflict resolutionists cannot succeed in their “reconciliation” projects, without attributing victory and defeat to the combatants. And our Good FRiday Agreement is based on the mantra that we all won and we all lost…that we are all equally to blame for our nightmare…a mathematical concept of 50-50 which is far removed from analysis.
We bought into the doctrine of Creative Ambiguity in 1998. We voted to accept that.
In 2021, we are grateful for the peace…but it was all founded on Lies.