Against forgetting

BLA utfordrer forfattere til å skrive om hvorfor de skriver. Denne gangen har den Berlinboende briten Paul Scraton svart.

Publisert digitalt

A few steps from our apartment building the river Panke makes its gentle progress south, to where it ends its journey by emptying into the Spandau Ship Canal, within sight of Berlin’s main train station. The Panke is not an important river. It flows for about thirty kilometres, from a pond on the edge of Bernau, itself just beyond Berlin’s city limits, through the suburbs and the inner city districts until it reaches the canal. It may be unimportant, little more than a shallow stream in places, but to walk its length is to travel through the history of the landscape, from the retreat of the glaciers to the migration routes of reindeers and the first encampments of the hunters that tracked them, through to the origins of Berlin on the banks of the river. The city grew slowly, over the centuries, until the railway linked it with the rest of the world. Industrialisation created new neighbourhoods on the banks of the Panke, as factories and tenement blocks swallowed the villages, meadows and forests that had once stood beyond Berlin’s city walls.

The stories continue as you walk the river, through the turbulent interwar years of the Weimar Republic and the dark legacies of National Socialism, World War II and the divided city that emerged from the wreckage. The Wall came down but the story didn’t stop, any more than the river could be halted by the border that crossed it. Another Berlin. The next Berlin. One formed from steel and glass in the city centre and in neat estates of suburbia out on its edge, built along the railway line that follows the river for much of its length.

I have walked the banks of the Panke many times. In short stages and, on one occasion, the entire way from its source behind a shopping mall in Bernau and down, into the heart of the city. I walked the Panke because I was in search of stories. I was trying to find them along that riverbank, on the streets that crossed via bridges and in the parkland, forests and edgeland spaces through which the river passed. When people ask me why I would first walk the entire length of such an inconsequential river, and why I would then sit down to write about it, I would tell them of my interest in landscape and place, in the events that shaped them, and how – when we follow a river from its source to the journey’s end – those stories help us understand how we have come from there to here.

My own story begins in 1979, in the north of England, where I lived from birth until I left in the autumn of 2001. At university I studied a mix of history and politics, developing an interest in places beyond the island of my childhood which took me, that autumn, onto the trains that criss-cross the continent. I was searching for stories of the places I had studied, and whatever else I could discover when I was no longer experiencing them solely through the pages of a book. Most of all I was searching for the stories that would help me better understand the century that had just reached its conclusion.

In Munich I caught a local train out to Dachau, in the company of a soft-spoken Australian tour guide who wore his accreditation around his neck and whose family had left Germany in the same year the concentration camp in which he now spent his days had been opened. In Prague I walked the streets with a man who told me how he’d help put Vaclav Havel in the Castle, where he still remained, and how he’d been on Wenceslas Square as they rattled their keys to mark the end of the lesson of Communism. And in Sarajevo I searched out the corner where an Archduke was shot to start one war and, only a few steps away, the craters filled with red paint that symbolised the violence of another. 

That evening, over beers in the guesthouse with my host Alexander I attempted to piece together how Franz Ferdinand linked to the Sarajevo Roses, and how the echo of those gunshots in 1914 could still be heard eighty years later in the frightening shriek of a shell launched from the hills above. Alexander had been in Boston during the most recent war, but had returned to Sarajevo to take over the guesthouse from his father. He did not know what was to come, but he knew one thing for sure: to declare an end to history, as had been suggested right at the moment troops had begun to circle the city, was surely nothing but foolishness.

It was at the end of that trip I landed in Berlin. It was supposed to be for six months but it has now encompassed almost all of my adult life. In Berlin I met my partner, who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In Berlin we had our daughter, who shares our languages and finds belonging in two similar but different cultures. And in Berlin I began to collect the stories, told and learned, that were part of the process of coming to understand a place I began tentatively to call “home”.

These stories and the attempt to understand the role of history and memory on identity and belonging became something to write about. These were the stories of my partner, her parents and her grandparents. Stories of life growing up under National Socialism and surviving the war. Stories of the German Democratic Republic and the aftermath of reunification. They were also the stories found in a culture that opened up to me as I learned the language; in books and films, television shows and on pages of newspapers. They were the stories found in the very fabric of Berlin’s streets, on the facades of buildings and in the city’s memorial sites, from the line of cobblestones to mark the route of the Berlin Wall to the single, brass Stolpersteine honouring the home of a Jewish person murdered in the Holocaust.

Over time, my gaze lifted from the city streets. I explored the countryside beyond Berlin’s limits, from where the forests and the river reach into the very heart of the capital, and north to the Baltic shore of my partner’s childhood in the GDR. As time passed I began to feel less of an outsider, but still not an insider. It was not a bad place to be, as I attempted to understand the legacy of history and trauma on the collective memory. All the while I was exploring the history of Berlin and Germany through such stories. I was also trying to work out my own place in it, as just beyond our front door, the river Panke continued to flow.

In the time I have lived in this city, the three of my partner’s grandparents I had the privilege to meet, have died. As cranes are erected on the Berlin skyline to mark the city shifting once more, it is clear that the generation who remember stories of World War II are slowly leaving us. As a child I remember the old men of World War I walking down our street on Remembrance Sunday towards the church. They were still around, then, to tell us the horrors of the trenches, of the fields in Flanders and of their young friends who never came home. They are gone now, and soon it will be true of those who experienced the horrors to follow. I look on, uneasy. If there is no-one left to tell the stories, myths can replace them.

I can see it happening in both places I have lived and which continue to represent the idea of “home” in my imagination, whatever it means. In Britain, a post-war generation invokes the spirit of the Blitz and Dunkirk in reference to the country’s ability to survive the potential disaster of a no-deal Brexit. In Germany, a right-wing politician who was still in nappies when National Socialism was defeated, declares Hitler and the Nazis to be nothing more than “bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history”.

A minimising, mythologising or even re-writing of history is not confined to Britain and Germany. Across a continent that spent much of the first half of the 20th century burying millions of dead, we seem ready and willing to forget the lessons of those years at the very moment there are others willing to return us to such dangerous times. I watch the news from Poland and Hungary, Greece and Italy, Sweden and Denmark, and I think of the words of the great writer Daša Drndić, who left us in 2018: “Without memory,” she said, in an interview with the Paris Review a year before her death, “we are easy prey to manipulation, we lose identity”.

I struggle with how we can counter the forces that fuel the rise of nationalist movements across our continent. But counter it we can. It can be countered in our families and in our schools, at the ballot box and on the streets. It can be countered through our memorial sites and by telling the stories of the past, not despite the fact that there is increasingly no-one left to remember, but because of it. Not long after the guns fell silent and the birds flew once more over the no-man’s land of Flanders, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig travelled to Ypres where the Great War battlefields were already becoming a tourist attraction. Was this distasteful? Ultimately, Zweig decided not: “All that recalls the past,” he wrote, “in whatever form of intention, leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned”.

The Panke flows. On its banks, more stories will be written. Those we choose to tell will help us shape what comes next. There is a famous line from Hegel that tells us, “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” It need not be the case. Yet we need to keep telling the right stories, the truthful stories. Even when there is no-one left to remember it is within our power, those of us who remain, not to forget.

Paul Scraton er en britiskfødt forfatter bosatt i Berlin. Han har utgitt Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast (Influx Press, 2017) og The Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin (Readux, 2015). Han er redaktør for tidsskriftet Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, og utgir i år Built on Sand, en roman fortalt gjennom historier, som gir et portrett av Berlin tre tiår etter murens fall.

BLA 4/19. 23.04.2019.

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