…In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;
In the mountains of Slovenia we followed the Soča River downstream until we reached the town of Kobarid. Here, surrounded by mist-covered mountains, we searched out the small town museum. I had been reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, set during the infamous Battle of Caporetto during World War I. The museum, with just the smallest of nods to Hemingway, told the harrowing story of that battle from both sides of the lines, including the reality of life in trenches atop a snow encrusted mountain. It was a powerful exhibition, making no commentary on the rights and the wrongs of the conflict, rather telling the story not only of the power relations that led these soldiers to the snowy slopes, but also their personal tales as recounted in letters, diaries and recollections years later.
It would not be long before fighting came to these mountains again. During the Second World War anti-fascist resistance was first organised against fascist rule in the region and later, following the Axis occupation of present-day Slovenia, the Slovene Partisans established strongholds in the hills. Just outside the town of Cerkno, to the east of Kobarid, we climbed a slippery gorge to explore the site of a former Partisan hospital, hidden beneath high cliffs from the German forces. A replica of the hospital still stands in place, a museum and a site of memory that provides the visitors who climb up the gorge with a timely reminder of the sacrifices, bravery and courage of the anti-fascist fighters and the doctors and nurses who worked there.
Back in Berlin, I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau for the ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ exhibition that had been previously shown at the British museum. There, among the artefacts of German history – from the VW Beetle to Gutenberg’s first prints – was a replica of the gate from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Located just outside Weimar, one of the key centres of German culture and home to Goethe, Schiller and the Bauhaus, the Buchenwald gate was designed by one of the inmates, a former Bauhaus student. In an act of defiance, the prisoner gave the gate its lettering in a Bauhaus-inspired modernist typeface that the guards at the camp were too ignorant to recognise. The words, however, remain chilling even when the gate stands alone in the middle of a museum:
JEDEM DAS SEINE
(To Each What They Are Due)
This year I finished my book about journeys along Germany’s Baltic coast and travelled north with my editor, to visit the enormous Prora complex – designed as a holiday camp by the National Socialists and now being transformed into luxury apartments and a hotel. The documentation centre that tells the story of the place is concerned that they will be forced out, and there will be nowhere that reflects on the history of these buildings. Meanwhile the new developers manage to extoll the benefits of investing in a heritage protected building while not actually mentioning why the building is protected in the first place. In many ways Germany is exemplary when it comes to dealing with its past, and yet on Prora it feels as if history is in danger of being erased.
These journeys through places and the past have been bookmarked of course by the politics of the present. First came Brexit, in June, and then electoral successes here in Germany for the right-populists of the AfD (Alternative for Germany). As with last year there have been anti-immigrant marches and attacks on refugee accommodation. In November came Trump, and as I write these words one of his advisors is suggesting registers for Muslim residents.
The morning we woke to the news of the election result in the United States was the 9th November. In Germany, this is a troublesome date. It is celebrated as the day the Berlin Wall came down, but it is also the same date as the Kristallnacht and the pogrom against Jewish citizens and attacks against the stores, buildings and synagogues in 1938. In Berlin, outside many houses, small memorials are laid into the pavement with the name of the person who lived there and where they were deported to. They are small, simple and powerfully moving.
A few days after the election, a friend of mine on Facebook posted pictures of the ceremony to mark the laying of two new Stolpersteine, as these stones are called. Having been laid into the pavement they were surrounded by candles and flowers. The following morning, the flowers and candles had been destroyed. In an email that day another friend spoke of “these sour times” we live in. These sour times indeed.
There are many quotes about the importance of history to our understanding of the world we live in. There is Hegel, who tells us “we learn from history that we do not learn from history,” and Santayana who warns us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” At times this year it had felt that we are either in danger of forgetting or simply refusing to learn. I have written a Shadows & Reflections for Caught by the River for the past couple of years, and never has it felt like there is a shadow looming as large as now.
In the summer, during a trip to see friends, we stopped by the Contemporary History Forum in Leipzig. Alongside their permanent exhibition on life in the former GDR, there was a special exhibition about the founding mythologies of the two Germanys. What was most interesting about it was the fact that it provoked the visitor to think about the founding mythologies of all political entities, whether the Federal Republic of Germany or the German Democratic Republic; the United States of America or the European Union; Tito’s Yugoslavia or the successor states born out of its violent break-up.
It is, it seems to me, a matter of storytelling. We understand history, the world and our place in it, by the stories we tell. Stories can come from all sides. They can be positive or negative, rooted in truth or rooted in lies; told in museums or books, from the mouth of a demagogue or the pen of a poet; they can encompass ideology, religion or the absence thereof. What matters are the stories that are told, who hears them and how they resonate. The Contemporary History Forum has a flyer designed to look like a danger sign on the edge of a building site:
HISTORY CAN LEAD
TO INSIGHT AND MAY
After Brexit, after the AfD and PEGIDA, and after Trump, there have been countless articles, essays, discussion panels and so on devoted to asking the question: what can be done? One thing that needs to happen is that we need to keep telling stories. We need to tell the stories of the past, the ones that can be found in the memorials, the objects, the museums and the physical locations. We need, like Caught by the River has continued to do, to promote ideas of tolerance and inclusiveness through words, art, music and more. Not everything needs to be overtly political, but inspiring people to explore their world and how they understand it in a myriad of different ways is, in the end I think, a political act in and of itself.
It may not always be enough. When we drove through Slovenia there were countless memorials on the side of the road, dedicated to Partisan fighters who had fought the occupation of their country and whose comrades had been treated in the hospital in the gorge. But reading about these brave men and women who fought fascism, it was telling how important the songs and stories that sustained their fight actually were. The illegal printing-press in the hills, a local commander wrote, was as important as the guns smuggled in across the mountain pass.
You can’t fight these sour times with creativity alone, but it plays its part. We need to tell our stories and we need to tell them well.
Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast will be published in June 2017 by Influx Press.