I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.

 

Today, apart from taking time to start on Rowan Williams's excellent and demanding Faith in the Public Square, I met an academic friend at the University of Basel and then we went to visit Karl Barth's house and archive.

Barth's house is not marked in any way and I wouldn't have found it by myself. The archivist, Dr Peter Zocher, was very welcoming – and is clearly an expert on the great man. I know this is really cringy, but I found it moving to hold in my hand Karl Barth's copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf and read the margin notes, underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks he had written in pencil. Having replaced that, Peter then opened up a document file and showed me the original handwritten draft of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 – probably one of the most important political and theological documents of the twentieth century.

I have to keep reminding myself that Barth didn't know how the story would end. As Hitler consolidated his power, it took great courage and clarity of mind to challenge him and the violent worldview he was soon to inflict on the whole world. All Barth and his friends had to go on was what they saw and heard at that point, and yet they recognised the evil that was being grown among them. (Barth himself refused to swear the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, resigned his professorial chair at Bonn, and moved back to Basel.)

I also looked through Barth's personal copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's first books – including Nachfolge (translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship). Again, he had marked the text with questions and comments I couldn't decipher.

There is something powerful about holding and reading books that had belonged to, been read by and marked by a giant of twentieth century theology.

However, what I found haunting – and very difficult to put out of my mind – was the discrepancy between the theological sharpness of Barth and his domestic arrangements. Charlotte von Kirschbaum had moved in to the Barth home in Germany and moved with the family (his wife, Nelly, and their five children) to Basel. They lived, effectively, as a ménage-à-trois until von Kirschbaum was elderly and ill. Karl died in 1968, Charlotte in 1975 (after suffering from Alzheimer's for many years), and Nelly was the last to pass away in 1976. All three are buried in the same grave in Basel's main cemetery.

Barth's social skills were not great. Those still alive who remember him relate how difficult it was to know how to handle him. If you wanted to invite him for dinner, who did you invite come with him – Nelly, Charlotte or both? When Barth was away he would write letters to Charlotte, but never to his wife.

One of my abiding questions is how we judge theology in the light of the experience of those who propagate a particular theology. For example, does the fact that Heidegger supported Hitler (which Barth condemned) influence the credibility of his theological perspectives or his philosophical project? Is there a relationship between the nature of Rudolf Bultmann's theology and the fact that he was able to retain his professorial chair under Hitler when other Christians were paying a very high price for their discipleship of Jesus? And, if we are to take this seriously, how does the reality of Barth's domestic relationships impinge on his theology – especially the clarity of his ethical writings?

Or doesn't it matter?

Correction: I had misunderstood a point about Barth's letters. He wrote many letters to his wife, too, but these have not been published. Barth put in his last will and testament that his private correspondence with his wife should not be published.

Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)

 

I can't believe I have just been in Germany and failed to buy a book I want to read. OK, I didn't know it existed until I got back and saw it reviewed in Wednesday's Der Tagesspiegel.

Keine gewöhnlichen Männer, by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi in the resistance to Hitler. Both were executed before the end of the Second World War, the former having got the latter into active resistance and espionage.

One of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I will never forget was having dinner with Klaus von Dohnanyi in Berlin in early 2006. I was invited along to a Meissen Delegation Visit led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. We stayed on the Wannsee (close to where the Final Solution was firmed up), flew to Wroclaw, Poland, for 24 hours to celebrate the centenary of Bonhoeffer's birth, and came back to Berlin for a couple of lectures at the Humboldt University. Dinner followed at a Berlin restaurant and I found myself at the end of the table with von Dohnanyi, of whom I had read a lot when he was Finance Minister in the Schmidt government. I listened to the long conversation about German politics, negotiations with Margaret Thatcher, and memories of his father and Bonhoeffer.

The review of the book begins by de-linking courage from heroism. This is what it says:

Mut hat nicht unbedingt etwas mit Heldentum zu tun. Eher mit: Zivilcourage und Verantwortung. “Die letzte, verantwortliche Frage ist nicht, wie ich mich heroisch aus der Affäre ziehe, sondern wie eine kommende Generation weiterleben soll”, schrieb Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ende 1942.

This is not the wet, liberal theorising of armchair generals, but the reflected conclusion of a man who chose the path that would lead to the gallows. But, it puts into perspective the overuse of the word 'hero' in popular parlance today. Is everyone who dies in Afghanistan a hero – even though they were doing their job as soldiers? Is everyone who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 automatically a hero – simply because they were there?

The relationship between courage and heroism is an important one. Questioning it is risky.

But, if the publishers want a review from an English perspective, I will, of course, be happy to oblige. (Neither heroic nor courageous; just shameless.)

 

There we are, trying not to be too complaining about everything, and the Guardian gets me going again.

Having moaned – with absolute legitimacy – about the state of language learning in England, I open today’s Guardian and find Simon Jenkins pressing another button: the history curriculum’s obsession with the Nazis.

Under the header ‘Britain’s Nazi obsession betrays our insecurity – it’s time we moved on’, Jenkins asks:

What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system.

He goes on to put his finger on a point we in the Meissen Commission have been trying to address for several years:

Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.

My own son managed to study history right through school and university, but it was only at uni that he managed to find an alternative to Hitler and Stalin.

Is it a mark of Britain’s insecurity that we can’t let Hitler go? Is it simply that 1945 was the last time we ‘won’ anything? Why when we play Germany at football do tabloids still do puns on Nazi imagery or football crowds sing such inanities as “Two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na.”?

The tragedy is that post-1945 Germany is an extraordinary story of division, political brinkmanship, economic re-engineering, social and psycho-social reconstruction, conflict, re-culturisation in Europe, and so on. If I didn’t like Berlin and Berliners so much, I would suggest that every school child in Britain should be taken to Berlin for a few days. Walk 100 metres down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor and you have to embrace language, history, geography, theology, economics and politics. You can’t understand German politics or culture without knowing history and how it has been shaped by theology.

The Meissen Commission is trying to address the English obsession with one exciting period of German history in two ways: (a) pressing for reform of the history curriculum in schools, and (b) embarking on what we are calling the Meissen Schools Initiative, aimed at establishing live links between schools in England and Germany.

Simon Jenkins concludes:

I must not fall foul of Godwin’s law, but the demands now being made of Germany “to show leadership” come with ghostly overtones of reparation for past guilt. Nothing is more likely to incur German resistance than to imply that rescuing Europe is somehow an obligation on a present generation of Germans for the deeds of a past one. Misreading Germany was a lethal failing of Europe’s 20th-century leaders. It is surely time to consign the Nazis not to oblivion but at least to history.

Like Jenkins, I suspect our obsession with Hitler and the Nazis is indeed a mark of our insecurity (or envy?). It is time we grew up.

So, Liverpool begin a new era today with a crucial game against Everton at Goodison Park. Both clubs are close to the bottom of the Premier League – a situation that was inconceivable even a few weeks ago. I find it hard to understand how everything fell apart so quickly – how the great tradition of a great club could be so easily rubbished and the fans of the club so humiliated.

Be patient with me. I grew up with only one question each spring: which trophy or trophies would the team be parading through Liverpool on an open-topped bus this year? We had thirty years of stunning success before it all began to sink. My memories are offended by reality and I am embarrassed to admit that I took success for granted. It’s hard to face today’s reality.

Which takes me on to a parallel line of thought that seems at first glance to be unrelated. There is a fuss in Germany about an exhibition entitled Hitler und die Deutschen (Hitler and the German People) at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. This is the first time a major exhibition at a major museum has focussed on Hitler himself and some people are not happy about it. Their fear is that it will be exploited by neo-Nazis. (Although, as the director of the Museum Hans Ottomeyer tartly says, “They don’t read books and they don’t go to exhibitions”.)

On the surface there is little to fear in putting Hitler centre stage and trying to come to terms with how this pathetic little man came to wield such destructive power. As I have remarked before, Joachim Fest attempted a psychological analysis of the main Nazi protagonists in his 1968 book, The Face of the Third Reich. Horrific and offensive as it might be, you have to give the ‘monsters‘ a face if they are to be understood and if we are to come to terms with our own complicity in their manipulations.

The problem for Germans is that very soon ‘memory’ will become ‘history‘. The generation of those involved in Germany up to 1945 will begin to die out. That is why it is so important to capture their voices and preserve the memory from becoming ideological weapons in arguments about history (which can then be used to justify present or future action). In my book Finding Faith I briefly describe Sir Jonathan Sacks‘s view – that we must be cautious about memory becoming history and thereby losing our roots – and the opposite caution of Miroslav Volf – that memory can be held onto as an ideological weapon for justifying the violence or particularism of future generations who have nurtured a grievance. (Think of Northern Ireland and the Battle of the Boyne, for instance, or the ‘tribal’ violence of the Balkans after the division of Yugoslavia.)

I might be wrong, but it seems to many of us outside Germany that the Germans need to stare Hitler in the face and disempower him. As can be seen from this weekend’s debate about the death of German multiculturalism and the problems of German immigration, it is almost impossible to address some issues without the spectre of Hitler hanging over. Which gives Hitler a sort of ongoing victory – the power of the terrorist to scare the ‘free’ into restricting the freedom that was supposed to define them in the first place.

The Germans cannot wait until the 1945 generation is dead before getting to grips with this stuff. Then it will be too late. For the memory will be partial (recorded) and the history will be an object for discussion or appropriation by those who will use it to justify their latest ideologies, self-justifications and violences.

I just wish I could be in Berlin to visit the exhibition.

Leonard Cohen performed in Berlin last week, the night before we arrived for the weekend. The Berliner Morgenpost on Friday had a rave review of the gig, using language that was both critically appropriate and affectionate. Describing Cohen as “one of the most moving singer-poets of our time”, the reviewer maintains that “seldom today is it possible to experience such an emotional, definitive, truthful concert.” What better conclusion could any artist wish for than this:

We cannot thank the venerable old man enough for subjecting himself to the exertions of such a long world tour. For standing on a ‘live’ stage again and letting us share in his great art.

At the age of 76 Cohen did six encores for his overwhelmed audience. I’ll be happy to still have a pulse at 76.

There is something about this generous appreciation of Cohen that exemplifies the spirit of Berlin. Walking around the Museuminsel or strolling down Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate, it is easy to forget both the agonies that were born in this city as well as the high culture that characterises German arts and music.

This is a city that bears the scars of the last century’s brutalities, divisions and inhumanities. On Friday and Saturday we visited the Reichstag as guests of the former German Bundesminister, Frau Dr Irmgard Schwaetzer, and saw in the bowels of the restored building not only the thousands of bullet holes that riddle the walls and give some idea of the slaughter that this building witnessed, but also the graffiti written on the walls by the Soviet soldiers who took the Reichstag and ended the war.

Generously accompanied by a retired German Ambassador, Dr Alexander Arnot, we visited some powerfully moving and challenging places:

  • Topographie des Terrors (the newly-opened exhibition on the site of the Gestapo HQ and Main Office of the SS – which is overlooked by what was Goering’s Ministry of Aviation and a remnant of the Berlin Wall)
  • the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (in the Bendlerblock where Stauffenberg had his office to which he returned thinking he had just killed Hitler on 20 July 1944… only himself to be taken out and shot along with other officer colleagues: Hitler had – incredibly – survived the bomb)
  • Gedenkstätte Plötzensee (where several thousand people were executed by the Nazis).

One of the powerful reasons for visiting these places is that they resonate not only with horror and terror, but also with heroism and sacrifice. They remind us that Nazi terror was not only directed at the Jews, homosexuals, Communists, mentally ill or handicapped people, but at Germans at every level of society. People were executed even for thinking the ‘wrong’ things – see, for example, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke.

I have no idea how I would respond to the threat of a regime such as the Nazi dictatorship. None of us does. It is shameful when people who live in relative security pass judgement on those who compromise or give in to intimidation and violence – especially with the marvellous benefit of hindsight. Talking to Dr Arnot I was reminded of the story I was told years ago about cattle on the prairies of America and how they manage to get hit by trains when there is only one train track for hundreds of miles. They don’t set out to get killed by a train. Nor do they have a strategy for roaming over the plains. They just put their head down and nibble a bit of grass. Then they nibble the next bit and then the next bit after that. They just keep nibbling and sometimes find themselves where they shouldn’t be – in front of a speeding train. They just nibble their way to destruction.

Evil takes hold because people compromise a little, then a little more. Then it is too late. But, frankly, if I was asked to sign a piece of paper in order to ensure that my children were able to be educated and not be excluded (as happened in the GDR), I would probably have signed. None of us knows until we are there.

Two other striking elements to the day’s visits and conversations:

1. Language is key to all this. The concentration camps were built on the need to take certain people into ‘protective custody’. Corrupt language and you corrupt the soul, opening us up to all sorts of miseries. (One of the points made by Rowan Williams in his book on Dostoyevsky.)

2. The Bible can be used to justify all sorts of appalling things. The Nazis quoted Paul: “Those who do not work shall not eat.” We know how that was used to justify systematic barbarism.

I was in Berlin this last weekend to preach at the Dom (Cathedral). The extremely generous Domkirchenrat and their wonderful pastor, Dr Petra Zimmermann, were wonderful hosts. Yet, standing in the Dom I couldn’t help but notice the gold lettering in the ceiling which quoted from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Yours is the Kingdom” – and wondering how that was read by Christian worshippers while the Nazis were corrupting, terrorising and brutalising their society.

I must go back before long. Berlin is – to my mind – the most fascinating, moving, challenging and demanding city in Europe. So much history is held there for those who wish to see it. Questions pour into the mind – for example, how did a society that experienced the fear generated by the Gestapo and SS so easily accustom itself to the Stasi in the GDR? Berlin is not just a place of horror, however; it is also a place of amazing culture, remarkable reconciliation, astonishing reconstruction, formidable hope and the courage to look not only to its past glories and crimes, but also to shape a better future. It is inspiring as well as sobering.

I don’t know why I should be so pleased, but the exit of both France and Italy from the World Cup is strangely cheering. No idea why – I like the French and the Italians. Maybe it is just the confounding of expectations or hubris that warms the English heart. Unless we are next, of course.

But, with a quarter-final battle with Germany ahead on Sunday, we can look ahead with depression to the singing by the English of such poetic epics as “Two World Wars and one World Cup, na na na na na…” There is something weird about the British obsession with the Second World War – as if it was the last ‘competition’ we won. A selective Hollywood-backed romantic remembering doesn’t help, but the problem goes deeper than that.

My younger son has just graduated (I hope…) in History and Politics at the University of Liverpool. Before he got there he seemed to exploit the preoccupation of every History syllabus at every school level with options to study Hitler and Stalin. Ask any reasonably educated kid in England about German history or culture and most will know little or nothing before 1933 (plus, maybe, the origins of fascism from 1918) – and certainly little or nothing after 1945.

OK, it isn’t hard to see the attraction of focusing on the dramatic, the catastrophic and the uniquely enormous human cost of Hitler’s adventures, but it has its dangers. Germany’s post-war history has been equally interesting and evokes admiration at the overcoming of cataclysmic defeat and humiliation. Yes, there are people who will never forgive the Germans and who will resent their reconstruction and reunification; but, Germany’s post-war division and subsequent reunification present important and instructive material for understanding the modern world (which is, I suppose, partly the point of studying history in the first place). Not least, the reconciliation in Europe led by French moves towards Germany is a story rarely told and little appreciated.

Helmut Schmidt addresses from a German perspective the problem of focusing too much on 1933-1945. In his wonderful book Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz, he gives specific attention to the problem of modern German history in a chapter headed Die schwerste Hypothek (in a section on the lessons of history titled Es gab nicht nur die Nazi-Zeit). Having briefly and lucidly described what it was like to be German in the post-war years (individually and collectively trying to understand and cope with both individual and collective guilt), he writes about the paralysis and fear of change that characterised the German psyche:

The more we limit our historical consciousness to the Nazi period, the failure of the Weimar experiment in democracy, Hitler’s instigation of the Second World War (with its catastrophic consequences), and the more we concentrate on the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi era, the more strongly we Germans react with nervousness and even fear to changes.

He goes on to illustrate his point, observing that post-war Germans always feared ‘the return of fascism’. He then goes on to say:

I doubt that it is right or sensible to focus school and university teaching on the Nazi era; on the contrary, I think this sort of education is actually harmful. Concentration on the twelve year Nazi dictatorship leads to neglect of other periods of German history. Above all, however, it conveys the impression – however unintended –  to our young people that prior to and subsequent to the Nazis everything was relatively unproblematic here. In fact, the ideological ground was laid a long time before 1933. For generations education had messed up: particularly education about the value and freedom of the individual person, about humanity and about democracy.

Schmidt is not saying that the horrors of the Nazi era shouldn’t be taught, but that they shouldn’t be taught in isolation from other parts of German history. If we are to understand the Germany of today and tomorrow, we must do so with reference to more than just Hitler.

What this really says, therefore, is that any History syllabus must be rigorously tested in order to demonstrate that it is truly about helping students understand and not simply reinforcing some convenient stereotype or prejudice about other people. For this reason the Meissen English Committee of the Church of England (which I chair in conjunction with the German Committee chaired by the Bishop of Braunschweig, Dr Friedrich Weber) is looking at doing some research into the teaching of German history in English schools.

Our concern is not, however, simply about history – it is about the desperate drop in language learning in England, especially German. How is it possible that in today’s world the learning of foreign languages is so dismissed and undervalued in Britain? The only conclusion I can come to is twofold: (a) that we are so arrogant as to assume that everyone else will speak English, and (b) that we do not understand Schmidt’s point that we cannot know our own culture unless we see it through the eyes of a different culture… which means knowing something of the other language.

It’s a bit like our football: we keep hoping that England is the best team in the world… and are always disappointed to find that our pride actually lies in a romanticised past which we are unable to surrender to contemporary reality.

I filmed an interview today for the German TV channel ARD. As usual, the Germans spoke perfect English. Most German fans watching tomorrow’s game will understand everything the English sing. The same will not be true of English supporters. And that is not a cause of pride – whoever wins.

Never having had one before, I am enjoying the first week of a sabbatical (study leave). Having, however, spent most of the week suffering from a miserable lurgy, I am already seeing the benefit of a clearer mind and time to read and think.

Back in August I passed through Johannesburg airport on my way back from a short visit to our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe and picked up a book in the airport bookshop. Called Dinner with Mugabe, it is presented as ‘the untold story of a freedom fighter who became a tyrant’. In fact, I learned little that was new from the book, but I also found it a rivetting read. Based on interviews with people who have known Robert Mugabe – some since childhood – it adds anecdotal flesh to the bones of other narratives of his extraordinary life.

In the book Heidi Holland does some basic psychological analysis of Mugabe in an attempt to understand the man who became a monster. She rightly observes that we can do little to address the challenges thrown up by someone like Mugabe if we simply see him as a monster and don’t penetrate through to the humanity that has become so distorted. Of course, understanding is never the same as condoning or justifying.

In the case of Mugabe, several episodes in his life (abandonment by his father, adulation by his mother, the inculcation of the idea of God-given specialness, treatment by Ian Smith, paranoia and megalomania, etc.) are identified as possible roots for the appalling cruelty and apparent unemotionality of this haunted, fearful and (ultimately) disastrous leader. Though not exactly ‘deep’ and ultimately predictable, this is a book worth reading.

But it reminded me of another book I read back in 1980 called The Face of the Third Reich. Joachim C. Fest wrote the first attempt by a German (or anyone else for that matter) to understand the psychological make-up of leading Nazis in the Third Reich. Instead of simply damning them, he attempts to understand what made these people into the monsters they became. Again, he says that we cannot progress unless we seek to understand rather than simply categorise and vilify who do horrendous things. So, he looks at people whose names are notorious and tries to comprehend what shaped them. It is a remarkable (and, in its time, a very brave) book.

What these two books do is to reject what we often see as the ‘tabloid’ worldview: let’s demonise certain people (for example, murderers, paedophiles, rapists, etc.) and call them monsters – an approach that absolves the rest of us from doing the hard stuff of examining ourselves honestly and intelligently in order to find root causes of bad behaviour. If we can assume that the ‘monster’ is not like us (or, better, that I am not like him/her), then we have an object for our vitriol and someone on whom to pour our ownunreflected judgement. We never get challenged because ‘he is not like me/us’.

Of course, to think seriously about such stuff is to risk being called a wet liberal by those who think the world needs to be made up of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But a society that refuses to address the real and complicated roots of human badness is one that is condemned to repeat the unaddressed fruits of that individual and collective badness.

I was reminded of this when I first visited the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The memorial to the Warsaw uprising is located on two walls of one side of a square. One has a relief of the heroic young people who started the uprising and fought against the tyrants. The other has a group of Jews with bowed heads being led like sheep to the slaughter. The message is clear: people respond in different ways and both are to be respected.

However, the German soldiers herding the doomed Jews have no faces. Our guide explained that the sculptor could not bring himself to humanise such evil by giving them faces. I asked if this was actually a problem in itself: that we remove the behaviour of Nazis from the ambit of our own potential and thus exonerate ourselves from having to face our own evils – that ordinary people easily become corrupted into behaving inhumanely. That in the right circumstances anyone of us might become ‘monsters’.

It was made clear to me that the question was unwelcome, inadmissable and should not have been asked.

Putin & Medvedev 2008Just as the contribution of the Beatles to the downfall of Communism and the Soviet Union is being recognised (!), there’s a big row going on in Eastern Europe at the moment and two connected things have set it off: (a) Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Presidential face of Vladimir Putin, has called for the teaching of history in Russia to reclaim the marvellous achievements of Stalin and (b) the Baltic states are lumping the Soviet Union together with the Nazis as invaders of their countries and oppressors of their people.

The last couple of months have seen (among others) the anniversaries of:

  • the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 24 August 1939 (which carved up Eastern Europe between the Nazis and the Soviet Union)
  • Operation Barbarossa which saw the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans on 22 June 1941 (which ended the non-aggression pact mentioned above)
  • the twin invasion of Poland (by Germany and the Soviet Union) that began on 1 September 1939 (followed by the declaration of war by Hitler in the Reichstag: ‘Seit 5 Uhr 45 wird zurueckgeschossen!’)
  • the declaration of war against Germany by Britain, the Commonwealth and France on 3 September 1939.

Medvedev and Putin are now a bit fed up that Stalin’s Soviet Union is being lumped together with Germany as joint launchers of World War II, maintaining that it was Stalin who had ‘ultimately saved Europe’. The USSR apparently had no option but to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalin bore ‘no responsibility’ for starting the Second World War. In this context – and following accusations by the Baltic states that Hitler and Stalin were equally responsible for the war – Medvedev and Putin have set up a commission in Russia aimed at re-writing the history to make it conform to the orthodoxy they wish to affirm. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, the commission appears to be dominated by members of the intelligence services and not by professional historians – 28-3, if you want precise figures.)

Stalin & ProvdaNow, before all the Commie-bashers’ eyes turn red and brains fall out, let’s remember that these guys won’t be the first politicians to want to re-write the history books. History is always (a) written from a particular perspective – that of the ‘winners’ – and (b) written to justify contemporary power concerns – in this case Russia’s claim to ‘privileged interests’ in its post-Soviet neighbours. As Jonathan Steele wrote in a useful corrective to simplistic interpretations of history:

History is too complex and sensitive to be left to politicians. First they manipulate anniversaries, then they move to textbooks, and the slide gathers speed.

What is interesting about all this is the wide debate it has sparked about history itself and who decides which interpretation is to be regarded as ‘orthodox’ rather than ‘revisionist’ (terms also bandied about in the Church to label dissenters from ‘my’ view as traitors to the cause). Irina Filatova says:

But history is a strange discipline – for as long as it has existed it has been pronounced dead. But it comes back with a vengeance, meting out its own sentences on those who try to silence it.

And, in an interesting reflection on the current debates about Afghanistan, Simon Jenkins impatiently states:

History is like the law. It offers raw material for anyone who wants to plead a cause or make some money … History is not bunk. It is a glorious seam of human experience from which leaders can seek guidance on their present conduct. But its parallels are never exact and are easy to distort, while its lessons are quarrelsome.

MonasThis is where the teaching of history becomes so important and why history teaching in our schools and universities is so vital. Like the monument to Soekarno in Jakarta, Indonesia, (described locally as ‘Soekarno’s last erection’ but officially known as Monas) – which has an exhibition of dioramas telling the story of Indonesia’s history, beginning with prehistoric boats sailing from Sumatra to Java flying the flag of modern independent Indonesia! – it is always tempting to tell the story from the present back to the past, giving it a thread of inevitability that justifies the present political reality.

But, history can never be reduced to a simple statement of facts. It will always involve interpretation by subjects and observers and will need to be treated with a certain scepticism as to the motives, assumptions and commitments of those who either write or authorise the ‘history’.

For example, it would be really interesting (and there must be a book in here somewhere) to tell the stories of the Bible from the perspective of the ‘losers’: the Egyptians prior to the Exodus or the Canaanites subjected to the ethnic cleansing of the Conquest, for example.