Recently I was running a programme in Frankfurt and over lunch on the second day I was chatting to one of the participants and asked them where they had learned their English since it was particularly good. She replied that she had been an au pair in her late teens in Ireland. I asked her about this experience and how she found Ireland. She said that she had very much enjoyed it. I commented that the Irish had a reputation for being very friendly and she agreed with this, but added a proviso that sometimes she had encountered people who reacted very strongly against her because she was German. In one instance, she and her young German friends had been refused entry to a pub and suffered some pretty strong verbal abuse on the grounds of being German. Following this theme, I asked her if this was common and how people in Germany felt about this. She replied that young German people were fed up with constantly being blamed and stigmatised for something they had not been involved in or responsible for (the war). I recognise that many people say we must not forget the holocaust. Yet, I have always felt uncomfortable with the constant focus on Germany’s role in the war and the continuing emphasis on the holocaust. I do think that recognising our capacity for appalling treatment of each other is valuable to remind us all of how terrible we can be, but I am wary of the implicit assumption that it is not us but others (the Germans) who are capable of this. It smacks of dividing the world in a very black and white way into us and them. It seems to me that it was this type of thinking that caused events like the holocaust. I also feel that looking on the war in such a black and white way fails to really take responsibility for events. Our story in Britain is that the Germans were evil and we were the brave good guys along with our gallant allies yet I wonder how much the crippling and inhuman reparations that were imposed on Germany by the allied forces following the first world war contributed to the seeds of the second world war?
If we look at the situation in relationship terms, how might any of us feel about a friend who continually brings up past mistakes and parades them in front of us and everyone on a regular basis? If the past were germain to some current argument or discussion we might accept it but if it were for no other reason than to parade it in front of us we might wonder about the friendship – particularly if it were the mistakes of our grandparents for which we were being held accountable? In friendships and relationships, I have found it valuable to cultivate a poor memory for hurts on the basis that the relationship is not then weighed down by the baggage of the past and I am able to keep my heart open. I wonder if perhaps it is time to forgive and forget? Certainly it would be very hard to find any people who had not been guilty of past atrocities – most European countries held colonies which treated indigenous people appallingly. All countries have their past of violent tribal conflict or conflict between ethnic groups and how far back should we go in apportioning blame (the Celts drove the indigenous British to the edges of Britain and were then themselves driven to the fringes of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, who were conquered and oppressed by the Normans). Indeed the history of man is riddled with violence. The danger is that we use past hurts as justifications for current violence and oppression. Perhaps it would be more valuable if we wish to commemorate past events for us to be sad for everyone who has died or suffered and remind ourselves collectively that the capacity to hurt and kill resides in all of us. I remember being struck a few years ago by a young woman in an Amish community who was raped and killed by a man who then killed himself. The parents of the young woman invited the parents of the man who had killed her to the funeral of their daughter, for, as they pointed out, they had lost a son as well and were in grieving. It struck me that if we could evolve to this level of common humanity the world would truly be a compassionate and enlightened place.