Late nights. Late morning departures. It’s 10 am when the door of Alhambra Hotel clicks shut behind us as we step out into the rain. By now the underground is easy for us to navigate and by 10.20 we’re arriving at Westminster. Woah. Huge crowds everywhere. Even from the station we can see the massive queue which snakes it’s way around the Abbey. Looks like we should take the London walk for sure. Their group size is limited in the Abbey so that side of things is no risk. We kill the time before the walk leaves by walking in the rain across Westminster Bridge and back. I’m looking for the plaque with the poem on it. I pause and turn to watch as I listen as Big Ben chimes the half hour. Woah. There he goes! Awesome.
I don’t succeed in finding the plaque. Hubby suggests perhaps its on another bridge. I highly doubt it. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to put a plaque about the poem Composed Upon Westminster Bridge on some other bridge. It’s here somewhere we just didn’t find it.
We meet up with our group and true to promise we get a significant discount on Abbey entry and we wizz right in with no queueing. We are in a group with a new guide who seems to be learning the ropes but is none-the-less amply qualified and full of interesting information about the various sights and features of the Abbey. We start with the cloisters which were apparently used principally as a passage way, though there are places where holes have been drilled for playing games such as marbles. I’m a bit preoccupied by the memorials to recent wars that are behind us. We move on and into the Abbey itself. No photographs allowed. First we head to the coronation chair, now minus the stone of Scone (That’s pronounced skoon by the way… not like the tasty article you eat in a cream tea). I’m familiar with the Stone of Scone so not a lot new in that bit for me. We stop nearby to the grave of the unknown warrior. Much is explained about the selection of the body, the burial and the marble. For the golden colour for the writing they collection ammunition casings from the battlefield and melted them down. You can read a lot of the rest of what we were told on the Westminster Abbey website. I would add for the purposes of my report that Australian and New Zealand forces served in the Great War as an element of the British Army. Victories and losses for Australian or Kiwi units were recorded and reported as British without differentiation. Australia was considered as British and considered itself as British. At the time of its creation this memorial in Westminster Abbey wasn’t just in memory of those who today we would think of as British. It was a time of Empire and troops from all over the world are represented at this sacred place. As such this is a place that remains close to the hearts of Australians.
When the Prime Minister of Australia felt in the 1990s that we should repatriate our own unknown soldier from France and establish our own tomb of remembrance in the National War Memorial in Canberra some Australians got very upset and felt it was disrespectful to this memorial in Westminster Abbey. Consequently the name we applied to the Australian memorial was chosen carefully to distinguish it from the existing one. A sort of nod of respect if you like. As I loiter for a look at the inscription I am frustrated that I can’t stop and have a few quiet moments here the group is moving on.
I catch up with the group as we navigate the crush of crowds. We assemble in quiet places here and there to learn about various graves and memorials and the deeds and anecdotes about selected individuals. There is an impressive array of names and statuary everywhere you can look. We stand in the quire and get a run down of the coronation ceremony and how the Abbey is prepared. They cram a huge number of people into the Abbey for a coronation with stadium seating installed on metal bars that are a permanent feature. It’s all very interesting.
The Abbey is absolutely bursting with people and the continual hubbub of people speaking. Our guide has to speak quite loudly to be heard above the background noise. The whole place is an assault upon the senses. It’s exhausting. Perhaps it’s my mood and my frustration at not having had some personal time at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, but I experience a bit of an epiphany. I’ve had a rather bad attitude to the puritans and their vandalism of the various Cathedrals up until now. Here at Westminster Abbey I’m finding a greater ability to empathise with their point of view. Not sympathise. That would be going too far. I do not by any stretch of the imagination approve of what they did to the sacred places in their time in power. But despite them having everyone in the Abbey stop and join in a short prayer every hour the Abbey does not seem like a place dedicated to the worship of god. It is a temple dominated by the worship of British culture and achievement or on occasion, of patronage. The puritans had a point after all.
Our tour ends back out in the cloisters and we are given some tips about what else there is to see. We can go back into the Abbey to the Grave of the Unknown Warrior also if we wish to. I am vastly relieved. I plan to do exactly that and we head straight there for a minute’s quiet reflection, but it is difficult in the environment of the tourist crowded space. We make our way back out to the cloisters. We explore the remaining areas. The Chapter house has some of the most important surviving art work of the period and the pix chamber where the Abbey’s gold and valuables were stored is also in original condition and worthy of our time. We stop by the little garden that is for private use of residents. It is very peaceful and green. The rain is falling and dripping quietly here.
Our exploration of the Abbey now complete, our next item on today’s plan is the War Cabinet Rooms. These are not far away and we head over past the enormous Methodist Hall, past a pretty swathe of parkland where trees are budding green, and where waterfowl are paddling on a lake; around some construction hoardings directing us to the entrance to the IWM site and aah… A line of people standing in the rain. We had thought we would start with lunch at the café. I ask the young woman manning the temporary entance with her walkie talkie if it’s possible to get into the café without the queue. Unfortunately not. Ah. We procrastinate and join the back of the queue while we consider our options. We’re over it. Over the crowds. Over standing, hungry in the rain. We decide to bring forward tomorrow’s plan and head over for a look at the Imperial War Museum.
We arrive at the IWM at about 2pm. It’s bedlam. There are people everywhere. We make our way to the café. Not a huge amount left. I don’t fancy what’s left of the hot options and go for a sausage and mustard mayo sandwich. My spirits lift as I see they have Owlet Cox and Bramley apple juice. Hubby went for the beef stew and a cappuccino. We can’t resist trying the little dessert tubs too. OK. Guess what I went for??? Hmm??? Yep. Bramley apples with cream. I’m afraid I have still not conquered the apple obsession. sigh. What else. Hubby opted for the rhubarb trifle. It’s not easy at all finding a space to sit, but we do get one in the end and I am very very grateful to be off my feet for a while. Everything was very nice. My sandwich was really yummy and so were the apples. We already know how I feel about Owlet Cox and Bramley apple juice. Mmmmm… soooo goooood.
At the entrance hall is a display of large items. I just love Old Bill. He’s simply awesome. But where to start with our time here today? We consult the map and decide to do a reccie down to the lower floors and then head up to the upper floors and check out the holocaust gallery. We decide to avail ourselves of the mechanical assistance to change floors. How appropriate. They have installed Schindler’s lifts. …groan…
In the Great War galleries there is cabinet after cabinet of artifacts. Many of them very interesting things, but there’s not a lot that tells me anything new. Mostly it seems geared to educating people with no prior knowledge and this is entirely reasonable and appropriate. I take some time to read over the causes of the Great War. A clear and succinct summary is provided that makes it clear that the various contributing factors and alliances had been building over a considerable period. Most of the displays in this section consist of relics of one sort or another carefully numbered and labeled. Labels provide some context for the particular piece. We particularly admired some of the art work originals and a fabulous set of toby jugs. I’ve not got a lot of brain space left to tuck interesting tid bits of trivia away at present, so what I do read mostly zips straight back out of my mind again. I’m looking for material of a weightier nature.
In truth what we’re really doing is a reccie here today. We need to decide how we want to spend tomorrow. The manifesto has it slated entirely for the IWM. We head up to the holocaust galleries which have restricted access. Signs prominently at the entrance say that children under 14 should not enter. Though there’s nothing in the galleries that I wasn’t exposed to on TV from a much younger age than that. Indeed it’s pretty restrained actually when you consider what it could have showed.
We’ve seen and read quite a lot about the holocaust across our lifetime. There’s not really very much in the facts at the IWM that is new to us. The part that we got the most out of was the eye witness testimonies recorded. Here and there are screens showing videos of interviews with surviving Jews about certain aspects of their experience. In other places there are sound domes or audio points with first person testimony of what happened. It is very moving. The displays conclude with a wall of “mug shots” of various individuals and the consequences they faced. Some were jailed, some executed, some never brought to justice. The “justice” side of things seems so inadequate when you consider the nature and magnitude of the crimes under consideration. Furthermore we know that crimes on such a scale cannot be committed by a few or even a few hundred individuals. You are left feeling that there is a still a big debt to be paid if justice is to be served. This is stock standard stuff. This sort of presentation and content is easy. Uncontroversial. I’m sorry, but I’m just not satisfied. The IWM has disappointed me. I expected more. The whole display on the holocaust and the numerical counter of war deaths that ticks over indicating the continued losses in conflicts around the world, set the IWM up as an educational facility with an agenda to educate and promote tolerance and peace. Yeah. Goodo. I have no issue if that’s what they think their mission is. But in that case, as the pre-eminent national institution for military history, my expectations are much higher than the approach that has been taken. I think there is room for a bit more British soul searching and a lot more room for telling the whole story rather than just the orthodoxy.
To take an approach of raising the issue of consequences to the perpetrators of the holocaust without also educating on the cycle of violence that carried on against Germans and ethnic Germans – women, children and old people - after the war simply doesn’t cut it. If we want to prevent future conflicts then instead of leaving everyone to go away shaking their heads in outrage and anger at what Germany and Germans did and resentful of the apparently meager consequences to the perpetrators, then how about talking about the price Germans and ethnic Germans collectively paid for the war and for the crimes committed against humanity. How about talking about how the CYCLE has to stop. It’s not enough to just say… “look how evil people can be. We shouldn’t be evil. We should be tolerant.” It’s much easier to keep reinforcing the self righteous myths of our own lily white innocence. The fact is it’s a whole lot more complicated than that. .. and more controversial.
Perhaps I should explain myself a bit on this issue. My hubby is the son of an Ambonese mother and “German” father. Hubby was denied any knowledge of his father’s family or Germany or anything at all about where his father was from, though his father clearly loved him. I have a number of acquaintances with German backgrounds and they all report a similar story. The past is off limits. Their parents and grandparents won’t talk about it. This was how it was for hubby too only with bells on. Any time Hubby or our kids asked a question about anything related to the past or that side of the family Joe would answer something like “You’re Australian. What do you want with all that?” We didn’t remotely understand this apparent rejection.
It was only several years after Joe’s death that we really started to find out the reality behind the tiny snippets we had been told by Joe’s long term partner after he died and to understand what had happened to Joe when he was a child. He was born ethnic German, a citizen of Yugoslavia, in 1935.
From what we’ve been able to piece together, in 1944 the village Joe and his family lived in was turned into a concentration camp. Ethnic Germans, whose communities outside the Reich had been established some hundreds of years previously were, on the agreement of the victor nations, declared Stateless. These “volksdeutch” were then rounded up and put into the concentration camps. Their farms and businesses were confiscated. Their possessions stolen. Conditions as applied in the concentration camps for the Jews were implemented, though stopping short of the industrial scale exterminations in gas chambers. Rapes. Beatings. Brutality. Murders. Starvation rations. Disease and death inevitably resulted. Joe’s mother, along with anyone of working age was shipped off to hard labour camps. As I understand it this was considered part of war reparations. Joe aged about 8 or 9 was left with his grandparents in the camp. The grandparents died and this left Joe to survive on his own in a concentration camp as best he could. He was shipped out to a refugee camp in Austria in 1950 with other “volksdeutch”. He would have been 15 by this time. We only know this from the interview he gave to Australian immigration officials in 1955. Records of which are now freely available. Joe then lived in a refugee camp in Salzburg waiting for some country to take him and give him a nationality. The red cross reunited Joe with his mother. As we understand it Joe and his mother were the only survivors from his family. Notwithstanding this, like many other young people and particularly Stateless people like Joe, he emigrated as soon as he could find a country to take him. He was only 19 at the time and one thing he did personally tell us was that he pestered his mother endlessly until she finally signed the papers for him to go. She stayed behind and ended up living in Germany until her death. Joe became a passionate Australian, and as I said, he taught his son to think of himself solely as an Australian. Don’t look back.
I have read various figures but it seems to be undisputed that millions of ethnic Germans were killed in this process of ethnic cleansing. Most survivors don’t talk about it or didn’t talk about it. “No one wants to know about Germans being victims of persecution, leave it be” is the commonly reported attitude. Perhaps they felt the collective guilt for the events of the war, or perhaps they just accurately gauged the international mood and the anger about the atrocities committed, perhaps by their husbands, fathers and sons, against the Jews and others. They stayed silent and moved on with their lives. This seems to have remained the case until the war in the Balkans and the new round of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against Moslems. Then they started to speak up; to write memoirs. To refuse to let the violence perpetrated against them go without personal witnesses only to have that cycle continue in what they still thought of as their homeland. In addition to these personal testimonies, new historical research is being undertaken now that the archives of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes are available for interrogation. One rather disturbing book I have read is Crimes and Mercies by a Canadian historian named James Bacque. It claims some eminent praise. It’s not comfortable reading.
If you were to ask me whether eye for an eye revenge against ethnic Germans after the war is understandable I’d find the question very easy. Of course it is. It is totally understandable. It’s much harder to understand those people who could come through or witness the atrocities committed by the Germans and maintain an ability to forgive.
If you were to ask me whether the sins of the fathers should be visited on the sons.. I get less comfortable. A lot less comfortable. The ugly truth is that it is entirely possible, if not likely, that Joe’s father was at least implicated in war crimes. We don’t know his rank. I’m not sure that really matters anyway. We don’t know what units he served in. The general histories seem to suggest that it was likely to have been the Waffen SS. That is what I have read is the formation that volksdeutsche were compelled to join because they were not eligible for the Wehrmacht. Perhaps he served in something as notorious and as vile as the Prinz Eugen Division. Somebody’s family members made up these units. Generally no-one wants to admit it though. Whatever the historical events are, whatever our personal connection with them, one thing I am certain of beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that the full story, the full ugly story, the whole cycle of murder and retribution has to be told if we are to avoid falling into the same traps in the future. No. I don’t feel any level of satisfaction with the displays in the IWM. It’s a cop out. It’s an exercise in deflection. Point the finger elsewhere to examine evil and in the process avoid examining some ugly super power home truths.
What’s more.. I shouldn’t have had to learn from the New Zealand Army Museum in Waiouru that starving women and children in concentration camps was a tactic employed by the British in South Africa during what we generally refer to as the Boer War. Speaking of which, the motives for engaging in that war were not too pretty either, notwithstanding the bullshit excuses Britain and Australia gave at the time (though we were not yet federated and had no independent foreign policy voice when that war commenced). I’m not saying Australia does any better in exposing the underbelly of our national behaviour … but the Kiwis do a better job with their military / war museum. They are not afraid of balancing the pride with the necessary humility. Here endeth the sermon. Suffice to say I don’t need to allocate tomorrow to returning to the IWM.
With these disturbing thoughts on my mind.. or the makings of them at least, we head home for a break before tonight’s activities. We head back out in time to grab some dinner at the Undercroft Café at St Martin in the Fields. It’s a huge café and it is packed with diners even though we thought we were getting in quite early. It’s another bistro type affair with options of several sorts of salads and a couple of hot choices. Hubby had Chicken and rice with vegetables followed by a serving of bread and butter pudding with custard. I chose one of the salads. My salad was nice but in a ridiculous bowl that was really difficult to eat from followed by apple crumble with custard. The desserts especially were absolutely enormous and not very nice. The meal served a purpose but that’s all I’d say for it.
At the allotted moment we head upstairs and show our tickets as we take our seats for a “candlelight” performance of Handel’s Messiah. Extra fee for a program. More extra payment if you want a cushion. St Martin in the Fields is as much like a concert space as it is a church having as it does a “circle” above the main body of seating. It can hold quite a few people. The orchestra strings into the performance space to enthusiastic applause. The choir files into their positions to another wave of applause. Finally out come the four soloists and the audience extends itself to give an even more rousing reception. On the back wall of the church is a modern decorative glass window. It is a clever design giving the effect of cleverly beaming from the central “heart” of the cross. The lights are dimmed. Sconces filled with lit candles shine light from the sides of the church. “hey” says the conductor “we’ll need some light here”. The large chandeliers are adjusted to provide more light. There are also the lights on individual music stands and a couple of spot lights. The church is not very dark at all. This isn’t at all what I would expect from a candlelight performance. Not that it matters really. We are here for the music rather than for dim lighting.
We learned on our London walk of Westminster Abbey that when Handel’s Messiah was performed for the second time (the first was in Ireland) the audience included the King. During the program the King fell asleep. The performance proceeded and then at the Hallelujah chorus, which I would expect anyone would agree is a rousing item, the King was woken suddenly and in the surprise he stood up. This has since sparked a tradition of always standing for the Hallelujah chorus. Armed with this information we were quite prepared when the time came and the conductor turned to the audience and indicated for all to stand. To hear the Hallelujah chorus in a performance space like St Martin in the Fields was a very special experience. We’re feeling quite energized as we file out of the church into the rain. We don our raingear and make our way the short distance to Charing Cross station. It’s been a nice evening to cap off what I think can only be described as a challenging day.