Much of my journey to forgiveness has been subtle, hidden, disguised and confusing. I am neither the perpetrator nor the victim of a crime. Nor am I in an obvious position either to ask for or offer forgiveness and yet for much of my life I have been immersed in a sense of guilt and shame, and forgiveness is proving to be a way through both.
My grandfather was a German general in the Second World War. He was a professional soldier in the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), the Artillery Commander of an infantry division in the invasion of Russia and received the Knight’s Cross for bravery in 1942. He was captured in 1945 and became a British prisoner of war, was tried and found not guilty for Nazi War Crimes, but was a candidate for a proposed 10-year de-nazification programme. After his release in 1948 he was a broken man until he died, a week after I was born. I often had the feeling that he handed me a baton, he on his way out and I on my way in: a baton of his unprocessed guilt and shame.
I grew up happily in England in the 60’s and 70’s largely unaware of nationality and war. However, televisions were full of war films with the familiar gruff German voices barking orders: “Achtung!” or “Halt!” – the Germans were naturally always the enemy. They were the baddies and when the 1980’s series “Holocaust” was broadcast, they also became the embodiment of evil. At school people would exclaim, “I hate the Germans”. I would try to protest that not all Germans were Nazis, not all were baddies for I knew otherwise from my experiences of my lovely grandmother and relatives, the magical, candlelit Christmases, the exotic sweets and foods. And yet, on my mother’s writing desk was a photograph of a man in uniform and he looked exactly like the soldiers in the films; the baddies. He was rarely mentioned so felt like a stranger… but he was my grandfather.
The endless negative depictions of Germans and the countless jokes led me to feel self-conscious about that part of myself. I began to really believe that half of me was bad, or worse still, evil. I tried to be good and ‘nice’ to compensate, not allowing people to get too close, for they would then discover just how bad I really was. I had a “monster” inside, as I warned one potential boyfriend in my rejection letter to him. I felt ashamed to be half-German.
I began unconsciously atoning for my own sense of guilt and shame when I started working as an artist/art therapist with German prisoners. I felt uncannily at home in prison among those who had officially been found guilty by law, and it was with a sense of urgency that I strove to understand and help them. I didn’t realise that, in spite of my genuine desire to improve the prison system, I was projecting onto them my own needs to be understood and accepted as well as my own desire to be freed of my guilt.
In my early forties various events prompted me to fully engage in the task of uncovering as much of my grandfather’s life, character and activities in the war as I could. Initially it was my intention to prove his innocence and ignorance of the atrocities that were committed by the Nazis. He was, after all, a respectable Prussian soldier. Nonetheless, it was not without trepidation that I read my grandfather’s letters from the Russian Front and captivity, the archival material in which he was described as a “convinced National Socialist” and the books mentioning his role in certain important battles. At some point I gave a name to the man in the photographs – Grossvati (grandpa). But what had he known about the extermination camps? What had he done? What had he believed was right? In other words, how guilty was he?
With the help of a total stranger from a militia website I began to comprehend the structures of power of the Third Reich and my grandfather’s place within them. I travelled to significant places – the barracks where he was interned as a POW, the artillery school where he taught, the home near Berlin from which my mother had had to flee from the Russians in 1945 and the place in Italy where a photograph captured the moment of his surrender. These journeys culminated in a trip across Russia by train with my 75-year old mother to the places where he had fought bloody battles in extreme conditions with horrendous suffering and casualties to both sides. The rows of memorials were evidence of how raw the experience still is among contemporary Russians.
In each location I carried out my own small ritual, which involved exchanging local earth with soil from my garden plus English tobacco – a symbolic gift for his smoking addiction, which eventually killed him. To my initial surprise, I found myself apologising at each place… and then asking for forgiveness. I felt the voice came on behalf of my grandfather, my mother and her family, the Germans as a race. And myself. With the voice always came a sense of peace.
It is only in very recent years that the burden of a German heritage has become a recognised source for inner conflicts and emotional disturbances. It even has a scientific name: the transgenerational transmission of trauma. The inherited and unresolved traumas and memories of my mother and grandfather created unidentifiable but powerful forces within me, which negatively impacted on my life and identity. It has been a long and huge task for me to unravel what is ‘me’ and what is the baggage of others.
I doubt I will ever know to what extent, if any, my grandfather got swept up in the general killing machine that Germany became in the war. At one point I felt I needed to know. I longed at least to find some sign of remorse in his writings, an admission of wrongdoing or even a confession of guilt for his part. But I didn’t. And it is no longer important. I just want to forgive Germans and Germany. And myself in the process.
Angela writes, makes art and gives talks based on her experiences and insights into some of the issues raised in the above story.