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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Germany - memories of childhood

Neil MacGregor's wonderful 30-part BBC Radio 4 series Germany: Memories of a Nation came to an end today. 

Germany has always been part of my life. My very earliest childhood memories are of Germany in the early 1950s. As I've written before, my mother was born into a German Jewish family. She came to England as a refugee in 1938. After the war my parents needed to go back to Germany to sort out the family's affairs. I recall that on one of these trips we were in an attic room in some modest B&B. I was lying in a cot which tells you how young I must have been. Through the little window across the street was a church with a huge copper-green spire. Its two bells were tolling a semitone apart; to me even as an infant, the elemental sound somehow bore into my soul, seeming to be filled with both an ethereal beauty and a profound longing. 

The fact that my very first memory is both musical and religious makes me stop and think. Then I remember playing with toy cars and bulging pine cones on the rush floor under the tables of our Gasthaus restaurant. I could make out the tips of pine trees outside, so it was either the Harz Mountains or the Black Forest where I know from photographs we spent time. Another recollection is of the island of Nordeney in the North Sea. I was amazed and not a little alarmed by the artificial wave machine in the local swimming pool, my first experience of reliable German 'Vorsprung durch Technik'. 

My mixed parentage made me a European: the first five years of my life seemed happily suspended between two languages, histories and cultures. My mother had become a fluent English speaker as a nurse in London during the war, and my father learned German when he met her. So our home was bilingual: I'm told I spoke German with a distinct North-Rhine accent (my grandmother was from Cologne and my mother from Düsseldorf). I was read to and sung to in German as well as English. My father found German music stations on the immense wireless set that stood proudly in the corner of the living room and whose valves took many minutes to warm up and start buzzing and glowing. 

What was never spoken of (after all, I was under 5) was what my mother's family had undergone in Nazi Germany. I only gradually began to piece this together and even now am learning about aspects of it that I had not known before. The first stirrings of awareness happened when I went to school. I must have picked up early on that in 1955, a mere 10 years after the end of the war, it didn't do to be heard speaking German in the street. When I was collected at the school gate, I insisted that we always speak English. Soon I had dropped German altogether. I never quite lost an intuitive understanding of how the language works, but in adult life it felt as though I needed to learn it all over again - one of many regrets as I look back and think about what has been lost.

As a teenager I fell under the spell of France where I spent my gap year. The nearest I got to Germany was in its eastern province of Alsace where I worked for a few months near the beautiful city of Strasbourg. I lived with a Protestant family whose Grand' Maman could recall German and French battle lines drawn on opposite sides of the road in her village during the Great War. Alsace had been part of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, to be liberated and French again after 1918. The church services were mostly in German, and everyone spoke the local Alsatian patois, a Germanic dialect incomprehensible to all but the natives. In a land so fought-over, it was understandable that attitudes to Germany were ambiguous. Maybe, I reckoned, you could be a Francophile or a Germanophile, a Romantic or a Teuton but not both.

Since those days I have been back to Germany many times to preach and take part in events in the Rhineland, Bavaria, Dresden (in the days of the Democratic Republic), Berlin and on the Baltic Coast of Schleswig-Holstein. I began to re-connect with the country, acknowledge my roots, and recognise my debt to it for the way it has shaped so much of my life, often unconsciously. This hasn't always been easy when its history is so coloured by terror and shame. 20 years ago in Düsseldorf, I went to the Goethestrasse where my mother's family had lived. It is a street of fine 19th century villas, but where her house should have been, there was a gap. An allied bomb had scored a direct hit; now an unlovely block of flats had been built on the site. It was a painful discovery (though if by some miracle my mother had still been living there, that bomb would have seen to it that neither she nor I would be here today). 

These are among the reveries that have been reawakened by Neil MacGregor's series on Germany. This blog started out as a response, but it rapidly turned autobiographical. Should I apologise - or is this part of understanding why I've found these programmes so stimulating - and, to my surprise, moving? I'll write a Part 2 that tries to reflect on some of the issues this series has raised. It feels timely. This weekend sees not only Remembrance Sunday in this Great War centenary year, but also the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany in 1989, not to mention the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938 which many see as the true igniting of the Nazi Holocaust. Food for thought during the coming days. 

Meanwhile, you'll find all the broadcasts on the BBC iPlayer where I think they will be available for a year. Well worth tuning into. 


  1. War is a strange business. I was born after the war, but my father and Uncles had been in it. My father had quite a bad time,, fighting in North Africa and all the way through Italy to Austria, while my Uncle, his brother was a POW first in Italy and later in Poland and took part in the Long March of POW back towards Germany as the Russians advanced. As an escaper he was badly beaten several times and never really recovered a sense of proportion about Germany as a Country or a people.

    In the 1970's I served with a NATO unit in Belgium, where my boss was a German Hauptfeldwebel. He and I got on well. Like mine, his father had also fought in the war and survived. I found that I bore no grudge. He taught me to speak some German and by the time I left, his English had a pronounced 'Cockney' twang.

    Later, I went to Germany often, once for a four year tour in Soltau, which as an eye opener. Living in the local community I learned much about the history of the War, one was that Soltau had a main rail hub where people were transported to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, 40 k away, which I also visited and a most profound experience that was.

    My experience of the German nation and people has only been good, in marked contrast to the attitude of my childhood, growing up with family members who'd suffered quite a lot during the blitz, my father being wounded twice never had a good word to say about Germany or Germans, but strangely enough, he loved the Italians, despite having fought against them in North Africa. Perhaps his experience in Italy, post 1943 after the Italian surrender was positive?

    I would be happy to live in Germany, and there are thousands of Ex-Servicemen who have settled there over the years. It's a beautiful country, particularly the South, where I spent many happy summers touring on holiday, and I don't understand the continuing bad feeling that some people have towards them. Mind you, I don't understand the strange relationship that exists between the British and French either? :(

  2. Thank you so much, Michael. Very helpful.
    Two generations of my family fought in the wars, and WWII made my birth possible.
    So mysterious a reality