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Feather's Miscellany: Germany And The E.U.

...Yes, Germany is now united and Europe is not at war, thank God – not even a Cold War. And Britain and Germany are part of the European Union. Whatever the drawbacks of that Union – and there are many – it has brought peace....

John Waddington-Feather muses upon German history and Germany’s place in the European Union.

As European politics seem to be in the news just now, I thought I’d have my bit of a say on the subject. But at the outset I’d better come clean and say I’m no politician; so this little say-so isn’t about real politics, but some personal comments on Germany and the European Union, especially the Germany caught up in the vagaries of history just before my lifetime and during it: the Germany pre-1914 and the Germany of the Cold War and after.

Tragically, my generation and the one before it saw Britain at war with Germany throughout the first part of the 20th century, the century in which my father’s and my generation grew up. Serving in the forces as my father, brothers and I did, we were militarised along with most of our male contemporaries; and perhaps that is why we sometimes feel at odds with generations younger than ourselves. We grumble at their dress and lack of discipline, their loose moral behaviour, their different values – and forget that my generation and the one before it sent millions of young men and women to their deaths on the battlefield and in death-camps like Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka. Whatever we say about the younger generation, there has been relative peace in Europe now for over sixty years – the longest period of peace since the Pax Romana ended in the 6th century A.D.

So Germany has been very much a part of my life, as it was that of J.B.Priestley, a fellow Yorkshire writer and a particular favourite of mine. But he knew a very different Germany from myself, a Germany which disappeared in 1914; a Germany he loved dearly and valued – as I do; a Germany which has given so much to the world in arts and science and technology. During Priestley’s young life, Germany was throbbing with vitality in music and drama, with good-living and hospitality. Priestley captures the feel of this long-lost Germany in ‘Margin Released’ where he describes a touring holiday he made as a 20 year-old in the summer of 1914:

“I chose June for my fortnight’s holiday, wangling another free pass, this time from Hull to Holland. I stayed in Amsterdam a day or two, staring at the Rembrandts and Vermeers. My luggage on my back, I set out for Cologne on a walking tour of the Rhine; not the river I’ve seen since, but another one, long gone….I stayed in tiny inns, buried among leaves, swimming in green air; I strummed on pianos in low-ceilinged back rooms for peasant tenors and basses, who put down pipes even larger than mine, calling for more rounds of wine and beer. I had a roaring good time, not in this world, perhaps not even in that other which was rapidly ending. I suspect now I was having a walking tour in picaresque and romantic literature.

I came back by way of Belgium staying in Brussels….The city itself was still leafy and comparatively small then, an operetta kind of capital, where I could exchange the few gold coins I had left for superb food and drink, and where, most suitably, I saw and heard for the first time ‘Der Rosenkavalier’

When I sailed for Hull, late at night, late in June, later still in our epoch, I watched the lights of Europe retreat to a glimmer and then vanish from sight for ever. .Those lights that shone, really were gone for ever. The Europe I left that night sank into history, banishing itself from my immediate experience as Atlantis had done when the sea sucked it down.”

The Europe of Priestley’s youth disappeared in the horrors of the First World War just about to break, a war started, like all wars, through greed and power wielded by a handful of men at the top, starting with a king and a kaiser and their advisers. When war started, the peasant singers Priestley played the piano for died by their millions horribly on the battlefields of the Somme and the eastern front like the youngsters in Britain and elsewhere in the world who fought in that war. Only the king and the kaiser and their advisers survived and died peacefully in bed in old age.

The Second World War was waged under rather different circumstances. It was a war of ideology, a war against Nazism. Greed and power played their part, of course, but allied to them was something more sinister, genocide and ethnic cleansing. At the core of Hitler’s madness was his concept of a Master Race, an insane notion that one race would dominate the world; and in order to realise his mad creed, all other races had to be wiped out, starting with Jewry. The war which followed devastated Europe and other parts of the world. It was a war in which my father and elder brother fought; one in the RAF and the other in the Royal Navy. They survived but many of their friends didn’t. My and my younger brother’s war was the post-1945 Cold War, the ‘war’ which found Germany in ruins and Britain in the grip of austerity licking its wounds.

By the time I went into the army to do my National Service in 1954, just 40 years and two bloody wars after Priestley, Germany was divided. West Germany had its capital in Bonn, and East Germany in East Berlin. The West was capitalist and democratic and the East was Communist and totalitarian. Anyone trying to escape from it over the border was shot, and all the time I was in the army (1954 -56) conditions in East Germany were grim till the collapse of Communism in 1989.

My memories of Germany during my army service are vivid, most of all the stark difference between East and West Germany. Whereas West Germany recovered relatively quickly from the devastation of war and, with the help of Marshall Aid, re-built its economy and cities to house a young population growing in affluence, East Germany remained economically backward and its young were fed with Stalinist propaganda. It was in reality a satellite of Russia in the Communist bloc.

As a young twenty-one year-old not long out of university, it was a shock to me to see the large, featureless blocks of concrete flats housing poorly clad and poorly fed workers. What struck me most when I entered East Germany were the people. They were cowed, spied upon, and couldn’t look you in the eye; nor did they greet you as you met them face to face. Theirs was a grey, grim world, an Orwellian world of secret police, the Stasi, and informers. It lasted till 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was united again.

Yes, Germany is now united and Europe is not at war, thank God – not even a Cold War. And Britain and Germany are part of the European Union. Whatever the drawbacks of that Union – and there are many – it has brought peace. It has brought stability and prosperity to its member states and it has some political clout in a world of growing power blocs. Germany is central to this stability, the fulcrum of Europe, and now enjoys with the rest of us, the longest period of peace in Europe since that Pax Romana. Pray God that peace will continue through generations to come, however different they are from ours.

John Waddington-Feather ©



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