Once a month, I give tours at a war museum in London. Right at the start, I always tell my groups that my tours won’t be focusing on the nuts and bolts of the tanks, bombers or anti-aircraft guns. I can’t even change a tire, let alone remember what sort of fuel a Sherman tank used (petrol, actually, but I had to look that up just now). To be honest, I don’t find those details very interesting, though I know many people do. What I do find interesting are the stories behind the objects – both the human sacrifice and the reasons why we got ourselves in such a mess to begin with. But above all, I like to remind people that although what they see in the museum may seem to be relics of an increasingly distant past, armed conflicts are an on-going part of our modern world.
Before I kick off the tour, I like to ask where people are from. Usually they are from the U.K., but I get people from as far away as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. I also get lots of people from the United States, Canada and Europe. Sometimes the Americans seem bemused by the fact that they’ve travelled all this way only to be given a tour by a fellow American, but they quickly get used to it. I love mixed groups. However, there are two groups which really intimidate me: veterans of the armed forces and Germans. The veterans because I want to make sure I give them proper respect by not questioning the causes for war too much; and the Germans because I want to make sure my tour doesn’t provide a one-sided history or demonize them in any way (e.g. don’t use “Germans” and “Nazis” interchangeably).
A couple of weeks ago, a man from Leipzig and his daughter joined my tour. They were both very engaged – especially the father. He wasn’t afraid to ask or answer questions, which is sometimes the case with non-UK participants. With or without Germans on the tour, I make a point to mention the bombing of Dresden. Over three days in February 1945, Allied bombers killed more than 20,000 people. To appreciate that scale, consider that 43,000 people died over a six-month period during the Blitz (September 1940 – May 1941). This is an incredibly sobering statistic which a lot of people don’t realize and are appalled to find out.
The German dad was quite helpful when I got to the V-1 and V-2 rockets, as he was able to say the German word for the “V” part – Vergeltungswaffen (literally, “revenge flying weapon” or “payback weapon”). I usually end my tours with these objects as they lead directly into what we’re dealing with today in terms of missiles and nuclear weapons. I also like to point out here that as destructive as the V-2 rocket was, it paled in comparison to the over 25,000 people who lost their lives in their construction (inmates from a concentration camp, laboring in inhumane conditions in an underground factory).
After the tour, the Germans hung around, as the father was quite keen to share some thoughts. Although I was running late for another engagement, I couldn’t tear myself away from the conversation. He was glad that I included the atrocity of Dresden in my tour and related some harrowing accounts told to him by his grandfather of people literally burning alive in the streets and dying from smoke inhalation. As it transpired, the father was a World War II enthusiast who spent a lot of his time examining the SS, and in particular Heinrich Himmler. Not as a believer in their cause, but to understand how madness was able to gain so much power. He pointed out that Himmler’s motivation for the murder of millions of people was that it would lead to the ultimate good and purity of the German people and that everything was subordinate to that. The father was interesting here as you could see him struggling to find the exact words to express his thoughts. He often said something to his daughter in rushed German for her to translate, but he would just as often veto her interpretation with an impatient “nein, nein”. But I understood him completely.
I raised the point that, unfortunately, countries don’t usually enter conflicts to stop genocide but to protect its interests. And this led us to Rwanda, to Bosnia and finally to Syria. How often have we said never again only to see history repeating itself over and over? And if I’m honest with myself, my alarm buttons haven’t been pushed as quickly as they should have. For months now, the Assad government has been butchering its own people, but I would argue only recently have people really started to pay attention. Perhaps it was the deaths of a western journalist and a photographer that finally highlighted how real this is, but never again doesn’t seem to be such a forceful statement. “Ja, ja. This is true,” said the German father. In the end, the father, his daughter and I all tried to imagine how brave we would be in standing up to the madness which perpetuates tyranny and genocide. Sadly, we realized we couldn’t say for sure what we’d do. The ideal of doing good is always there, but in reality who knows? And then I thought about an email I recently deleted from Amnesty International.
Before we parted, the father tried to find a word to describe our connection. Out of the back and forth in German between him and his daughter, I picked out the word simpatico. “Ja, you have that word in English?” “Yes, we do, and it’s a good word.” On that, we shook hands.
And when I got home, I made a point of going through my deleted items and pulling out that email from Amnesty International about the Syrian atrocities. It’s a start, but far from never again.