How do we tell the stories of the past from generation to generation?
Scottish Review, May 22nd 2019
A number of events happened in the last week that brought home t the passing of time and what really matters in life – and how we understand it (or not).
First and foremost, I took my Auntie Betty, now aged 85, to the former fishing village of Auchmithie near Arbroath. Betty was the lifelong best friend of my mother, and not my natural auntie, but family in the best sense. She provides a major connection to my parents, gives me an adult perspective on my childhood -and indeed my entire life.
I always got on with Betty. She personifies spirit, humour, energy, political insight, and most importantly, a curiosity and zest for life. In a recent discussion after the SNP conference and the debate on the SNP Growth Commission, I asked Betty what she thought of the latter and she replied (having watched it in its entirety) that ‘knowledge wasn’t a pre-requisite to take part in that debate’. Betty, I should add is no slouch in such matters, having gained an Open University Economics degree in mid-life, subsequently lecturing in economics at Abertay University.
I dedicated my most recent book, The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party (which charts how there was once a counter-story of Labour Britain which is no more) to Betty. After Sunday lunch at Auchmithie’s iconic But ‘n’ Ben restaurant, I produced a copy and read Betty the inscription that mentioned some of the above. This small gesture, that nevertheless said something really human, reduced Betty to tears of joy, and even elicited the odd tear in myself as a result.
Our afternoon in Auchmithie brought back all sorts of memories. The small village sits on top of striking cliffs, its Victorian harbour long bereft of any sailing activities. As a child I spent many an enjoyable day there on runs out from Dundee, collecting seashells with my mum that she used to decorate lamp vases. In the early 1970s we spent one summer holiday staying in the cliff-side ‘Lobster Pot’ hotel (now converted into flats), that was filled with Glaswegian families. And in 1993 when my father passed away there seemed only one place to scatter his ashes –the outermost edge of the old crumbling harbour facing out to the bracing winds of the North Sea.
This afternoon was life-affirming, and the following day I watched on BBC4 something which reached me as much emotionally, but touched on some of the darkest issues which have faced humanity – Storyville’s ‘A German Life’, about Blunhilde Pomsel, who worked for the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and for the last three years of the Third Reich, worked personally to Joseph Goebbels.
This is a stunning film, the only comparative example being the film of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge, who contributed much of the detail to the legendary film ‘Downfall’. The film profiles Pomsel at the age of 103 shot in stark monochrome, emphasising her remarkable weathered, lined face, and forcing viewers to focus on her words (she subsequently died at the age of 106).
What remarkable, revealing words they are. Pomsel is articulate, reflective, a fascinating, if flawed witness and participant in history. She remembers the start of the First World War, the rise of the Nazis, and their coming to power, the Second World War, and the ensuing chaos and destruction which the Nazis brought upon themselves and the world, including the last days in the ‘Führerbunker’ and the suicides of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goebbels, his wife and six children.
Pomsel’s account raises the issue of the power and limits of personal testimony, of memories, and individual responsibility. She acknowledged the question of what the correct response should have been to the rise of the Nazis but talked about the all-encompassing, spellbinding nature of the Nazi dictatorship and its erosion of individual choice and will.
Some of her claims have to be treated with scepticism. Central is her assertion that she and many of her colleagues knew nothing of the ‘Final Solution’ and the mass murder of six million Jews, claiming that all they knew was that concentration camps existed and that was where Jews and others were ‘re-educated’. Talking of the psychology of Nazi Germany she said ‘We were all in a huge concentration camp’ underneath a ‘dome’ of fascism.
‘All in all, we had no idea what was going on with Hitler’, Pomsel stated in self-justification, but, ‘One did not want to know too much, one did not want to burden oneself unnecessarily.’ Asked whether she felt a sense of guilt she emphatically replied: ‘No. I would not consider myself guilty. Unless one accuses the entire German people of the fact that in the end, it contributed to the reality that this government came to power in the first place.’
She does reflect on the brutal nature of Nazi power and the eradication of Jews from public life, as she witnessed her close Jewish friend, Eva Lowenthal, disappear. Years later, Pomsel, went to the newly opened new Holocaust memorial in Berlin, looked up her friend and found that she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1945.
This film is another valuable contribution to understanding the unique darkness and allure of the Nazis, and how they carry a warning from history, resonant to this day. She captures the individual charm of senior Nazis such as Goebbels, and their chameleon-like nature, able to turn into baying, monstrous demagogues, such as in his infamous ‘Total War’ Sportpalast speech in early 1943, after the disaster of Stalingrad, where Pomel sat in a prominent position behind Magda Goebbels.
This is timely in many more ways. The past seems as cluttered, contested and divisive as the present. Numerous voices all over the European continent say what used to be rightly unsayable, making pro-Nazi comments and eulogising the record of mass murder, genocide and destruction that they brought to the continent. There has always been a strand of pro-Nazi sentiment on the right everywhere in Europe, including the British Tories, with ex-minister and diarist, Alan Clark, writing in 1981: ‘I told Frank Johnson [a ‘Daily Telegraph’ journalist] that I was a Nazi; I really believed it to be the ideal system’, but these were usually things more said in private or by marginal figures. Not any longer.
The passing of time is fundamental to us as human beings and how we think about and organise our societies, and the inter-relationship between individual and collective memories, and the stories and lineages between the generations and ages. Once upon a time many of these things were assumed, with liberal patrician elites thinking that they could interpret and understand what was in the best interests of all of us: a logic which underpinned most of British life from empire to the making of the post-war welfare state.
We may have abolished the conceits of the above sentiments for good and bad, but really have we progressed that much? Instead, we are surrounded by cultures and societies which seem bitterly divided, filled with anger, rage and mutual incomprehensions, and which appear on the verge of breakdown. On top of this we have retreated into the illusion of the sovereign self and the belief that freedom and self-expression can be found at the level of the individual: seen on left, right, identity and cultural wars, and away to be given a massive impetus by the arrival of AI.
How we hold onto, maintain and strengthen our common bonds of humanity is one of the greatest challenges facing us. It underpins everything from climate change to the hollowing out of democracy and the anti-social individualism of the super rich. Fundamental to this is passing knowledge, insights and memories from generation to generation, listening to each other, adding to these stories, and letting them live in the present, whether my auntie Betty and her political insights, or Blunhilde Pomsel and her up close account of life in Nazi Germany.
Pomsel’s account is a telling one, reducing her role in the day-to-day machinations of tyranny to the mundane and the administrative. In one of her last interviews before her death, Pomsel showed an acute understanding of the connection between the rise of the Nazis and the perils of the present day and march of demagogues, commenting: ‘Hitler was elected democratically, and bit by bit he got his own way. Of course that could always repeat itself with Trump or Erdoğan.’ She hoped that we would not make the same mistakes again and that ‘the world doesn’t turn upside down again as it did then’. It would be good advice to listen to an alarm call from someone who was inside the workings of the Nazi terror state. We cannot say we have not been warned.