poppies at Tower2In May this year I will be accompanying a group of friends visiting the scenes of some of World War 1’s battles in Belgium and Northern France. I have to admit to ambivalence about this trip because the history has never especially interested me and I do not feel as compelled as I was when having the chance to visit Auschwitz. In fact, that lack of imperative is why I agreed to go – to explore my own responses, or lack of, to one of the world’s most traumatic eras.

As part of the preparations, one of my friends has just revealed some personal history that is leading him to be ‘holding the German side’ when we visit France in April. I’m not going to share his words, but am happy to post my response.

Thanks for that my friend, some details of which I was not aware and which bring your situation to life. For me you raise an interesting point about what might be ‘nationality’.

If I have a ‘position’ on this, and I guess we all have even if it is implicit, then it is probably that of being human.

I don’t particularly feel as if I belong to any nation (or community of nations – EU), although when asked where I am from when I am abroad I usually say something like “Leeds, from the North of England”; that’s accurate as a description of where I currently live (I was actually born in Hull, so some would say that is where I ‘come from’ and I actually feel more like an ‘Ullite than a Bradfordian) and helpful if the questioner really wants to know the answer. Ultimately the labels we use to describe our places are transient and I’m happy to be a Yorkshireman, English, British, European, a citizen of the World…all of which are accurate.

As for the visit, I’m really pleased that we are recognising both sides of this conflict. It’s too easy to accept the victor’s account, believe it to be true and forget that there are other narratives. After all, the Milgram stuff demonstrated that in certain circumstances we might all do wicked things and I honestly do not know how I would have reacted as a 20 year old German given a ‘do or die’ imperative when faced with an instruction to do something horrendous. It’s easy to be ‘correct’ and propound humanitarian positions from the comfort of our relatively well-heeled safe armchairs but I suspect that in the het of battle things are different. Remember one of my beliefs – “we are all doing our best all the time” – and how it applies in the moment, in my particular circumstances. I get really upset when I hear about those young men who “gave their lives”; NOT THEY DIDN’T, THEY HAD THEIR LIVES RUDELY TORN FROM THEM, sent to often hopeless causes by politicians who sat comfortable in their bunkers calculating whether a particular loss of life/attrition rate/collateral damage was worth it. And it still happens. What’s worrying is that we now have a cohort of politicians, of all flavours, who (like me) have no direct experience of the horror of war and must surely have less of the inner abhorrence that their fathers and mothers had.

Recall that I have also raised the topic of ‘women in war’, without having been able to find anything much to commemorate their experiences – it’s a strangely male occupation!

Finally Calais. Another sad example of the consequences of abused power, ethnic cleansing, religious zealotry, whatever. I have written elsewhere recently that ‘we’ might feel and act very differently if it were our own homes and lives under attack, if there were millions of Brits living in the squalid conditions that so many migrants have to suffer, being so desperate that they choose to cross the North Sea in creaky boats, our children washing up dead on foreign shores… We all make our own choices about how to respond and although nobody has yet suggested it, I would love to find a way to make a contribution as we pass by those poor souls near Calais.

 

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