For six weeks over the summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to work for the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfüsorge e.V, Landesverband Berlin (German War Grave Commission, Regional Association Berlin). The Volksbund is a nonprofit organisation who are responsible for maintaining war graves, memorials and the memory of those who lost their lives in the First and Second World War. My project, under the name ‘Our Shared History: War personnel of the Commonwealth Remembered/ Unsere geteilte Geschichte: Kriegsopfer aus dem Commonwealth unvergessen’ was dedicated to giving names and stories to the fallen buried in the former British occupation zone of Berlin. Too often, war personnel are reduced to mere statistics, when each of them has their own stories, memories and families. It was my role to collaborate with archives and the local community in Berlin to seek biographical information about the fallen to bring their stories to life. These biographies are to be used in tours of war cemeteries in Berlin for younger people, who themselves did not live through the war period.
The aims of the project were therefore both emotional and ethical. Through presenting the biographies of the fallen, which impart information about their childhood, their memories and personalities, young people are able to engage with the human tragedy of conflict through developing empathy for the war generation. This empathy is imperative as it strengthens intergenerational relations as young people gain an understanding of what their grandparents and the generations preceding them lived through. Furthermore, this compassion and understanding also encourages younger people to become critical of conflict, how it arises and escalates. Through helping younger people engage critically with conflict, we help to ensure that our future leaders work to prevent such human tragedies from occurring again.
In order to develop the human aspect of the project, I developed a podcast to interview the relatives of the fallen in addition to experts in the field of cultural memory. This allowed me to gain a variety of different perspectives on the consequences of conflict. It was immeasurably rewarding to speak to the relatives of the fallen and gain an understanding of the human impact of war. Throughout the podcast, I was fortunate enough to lead interviews with the following people:
- Professor Rainer Hering, from the University of Hamburg and director of the regional archives in Schleswig-Holstein
- Professor Helmut König, political scientist who also worked as a professor in Aachen
- Dr Jonas Anderson from the Universität der Bundeswehr München
- Dr Rachel O'Sullivan, researcher at the Centre for Holocaust Studies as part of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich
- Bill Dawson, great nephew of Pilot Officer Ralph Henderson
- Ritchie Conaghan, researcher of the Girvan and District Great War Project
- Dr Peter Lieb military historian at the Bundeswehr
- Steve Smith, battlefield guide and author
- Jan Bejsovec, museum director in Berlin
For me, it was also a moral question to keep the project as bilingual as possible. Although English is considered a more global language than German and may have proved easier to record in, as a native English speaker, it was imperative for me to break down the boundaries between our cultures. Through engaging with the families and local communities in their own native language, I was able to connect to them, through displaying a respect and desire to get to know a culture other than my own. It is precisely this bias towards one culture and the implicit devaluation of another that leads to conflict and increases the distance between us. It was imperative throughout the project to acknowledge that borders are imagined. They are superficial. It was vital for me to emphasise the human impact of conflict as this is something that affects us all. The interviews were therefore an opportunity for us to critically analyse the human tragedy of war in order to work for peace.
For every biography I gathered, for every soldier I found, I visited their grave to lay them a white rose. This rose was not only a token of respect, but a tangible sign that they were not forgotten. The white roses very quickly became a symbol of the project that was recognised in the local community and led to more people reaching out to me in the hope of finding their loved ones. The way that the project moved the local community and further afield led to the exciting opportunity of being invited to the British Embassy in Berlin to discuss the outcomes of the project. I met with Military Attachè/SBLO Simon Hirst and shared the fascinating and moving insights I had received in the course of the six weeks. The British Embassy in Berlin were so grateful for what the project had achieved that plans are now in place for me to hold a speech at the British Embassy in Berlin in advance of Remembrance Day.