Forgetting to Remember – The Scourge of Generational Amnesia

A sharp tip glinted out of the tree having traveled through from the other side. Chopping the wood open revealed the small bullet to be as shiny as the day it had been fired over 60 years before as Allied troops pressed into Germany in the closing months of World War II.

German soldiers in forest WWIIAnd there were more. This time a dull, blunt and rounded chunk of metal embedded deep into another tree— the remnant of heavy machine gun fire and a very tangible reminder of the hell that had been unleashed here.  We were told it is common to find bullets and shrapnel embedded in these trees.

We had come to the forest to cut a Christmas tree in the late days of December, an ancient tradition in this part of western Germany. The families of whom we were the privileged guests showed us around these quiet hills which, cloaked in freezing mist and joined by warm mulled wine with even warmer company, were a memorable part of this year’s Christmas for us.

The contrast for me was profound, at once a reminder of how far Europe has travelled away from its blood soaked past but also of the risks that never really go away.

After all there we were— a family from England who had met a family from Germany on holiday in France—standing in beautiful countryside and sharing traditions. That was the progress part.

But there, in this beautiful wooded countryside, we stood among the trees in the same forest where our grandfathers had slaughtered one another.  The violence of war had been visited on this place as a result of a political elite’s collective failure to address the rise of extremism, the wave of which they caused by first failing to manage the global economy.

A Not so Golden Dawn in Greece

Sadly that last bit about the failure of elites and the rise of extremism is an increasingly accurate description of the countries of Southern Europe today. When I was in Liberia earlier this year I met a Greek guy in his mid-thirties, about the same age as me.  He had never been to Africa before and ended up in a fairly random job in West Africa simply because he had been so desperate to get out of Greece. He gave accounts of elderly Greek people being wheeled out of care homes and left on the streets because their families could no longer afford the fees. That was terrible enough.

Golden Dawn leader at press conferenceGolden Dawn party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos at a news briefing

But then he mentioned something in passing which was even more troubling. Before he left Greece, he had voted for the fascist Golden Dawn party, who now occupy seats in the Greek Parliament. When I asked him why, he assured me that he wasn’t a fascist—after all, he reminded me,  he had “… moved to Africa.” His reason for voting for the fascist party before leaving Greece was that the political system “needed a shock.” It could have been straight out of the mouth of a suddenly impoverished 1930s worker in Weimar Germany, casting his vote for the Nazis, to “send a message.”

Hitler Goes Retail in India

While in India the appeal of Hitler seems to lie in a perception that he was a firm leader who “got things done.”  Many businesses now appear to be cashing in on the Nazi brand, and sales of Mein Kampf are described as “brisk.”

hitler store in IndiaHitler Store in India

Those Indians who seem to admire Nazi Germany do not do so because they are filled with hate or are anti-Semitic, but are responding instead to the appeal of charismatic, strong leadership.

Remembering Not to Forget the Past

And therein lies the problem. If it is possible for the passage of time to sanitize a period even as blood drenched and cataclysmic as the Third Reich, then can we really be so complacent as to imagine it could never happen again?

That night in Germany, over more drinks and by the warmth of a fire, our hosts and I reflected on how our own generation’s world view had been shaped by the Cold War  and yet  how the fall of the Berlin Wall was now but a chapter in our children’s textbooks. To them the idea that they could be at war with each other was a bizarre notion. And yet one of our hosts described that as a young girl she had been taught how to use a rifle by her grandfather.  He was motivated by the ever-present shadow of fear that his granddaughter might face a future including a return to the carnage and mass rape that accompanied the Russian advance into Germany from the East which he had experienced first-hand.

As Europeans it is tempting sometimes to focus only on the progress we’ve made, and the EU’s role in that was recently recognised with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.  But the unfolding political chaos in Greece with the prospect of more countries to follow surely means that we have no room for complacency at all. And in the beautiful forests of western Germany trees bearing hidden bullets stand as silent testament to that truth.

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About Chris Underwood

Chris Underwood is a peacebuilder, a student and a blogger. As Senior Policy Advisor for International Alert he has worked across Africa and Asia, and is currently focused on working with global civil society to ensure peace and conflict are reflected in the development framework that follows the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. He is in the final year of an M.Sc at the University of London, Birkbeck College, looking at the African Union peace facility and blogs regularly at chrisunderwoodsblog.com. Chris writes here in a personal capacity.
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