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Are we really all here? Do we all really count?

Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay, like many before him, some years ago asked, “what it did it mean to be Australian”, was there such a thing as an Australian identity. He concluded that wasn’t really the important question: What was important was that “we are all here and we all count.” A strong statement about humanity! The experiences of Europeans, as they emerged in the 20th century from the near continuous bloody conflict of previous times, are likewise statements about humanity and what it means to be civilised. Now countries that spent millennia fighting over almost anything work together on some of the most difficult issues, something that federated states that consider themselves to be single nations seem not to appreciate.

Lessons are here for us as Australians, in Mackay’s observation and in countless examples of even recent history, lessons about unfinished business. Think of what colonization is all about and why the world is like it is now. And what responsibility we might take for the conflicts around the world, now within nation states rather than between them, conflicts that continue to destroy the innocent whilst arguably doing nothing of importance in the long term.

Have we made any progress in this in the last 60 years since another of those wars to end all wars? Many commentaries challenge us yet for many it is just too difficult to face the truth that ordinary people do, or at least tolerate, dreadful things. Hideous dictators like Hitler and Stalin and some more recent heads of state were at the same time ordinary people and were surrounded by and followed by ordinary people like you and me.


Wurzburg and Cologne are old and important German cities, now modernised. Cologne, with its wonderful cultural attractions – not least a leading museum of modern art – was granted the rights of a Roman city in 50AD by Julia Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius. Judging by the number of Italian restaurants, and the extraordinary quality of several, when the Roman rulers lost interest in Cologne, many ordinary folk stayed.

Wurzburg and Cologne share with many other German cities including Berlin, a recent history, wholesale destruction by allied bombing during World War 2. Cologne was left with 10% of its buildings, Wurzburg, and Berlin, with even less: former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once suggested much of the destruction of Berlin around the vigorously developing Potsdammer Platz in former East Germany should have been left untouched as a reminder of what war meant.

Most European cities destroyed in that war have been rebuilt physically, new buildings added, museums created, a recent one being Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. And many notable buildings have been restored, not least Dresden’s baroque Church of Our Lady with its famed bell-shaped dome, left as a mound of rubble and jagged walls by the Allied firebombing of 13-14 February 1945; United States and British funds helped the restoration, described as “a great work in the spirit of reconciliation” celebrated at the reopening. The new gilded orb and cross on top of the dome were constructed by the son of a member of the aircrews who took part in the bombing of Dresden.

As in much of Europe post World War 2 recovery in Germany was significantly assisted by American funds as part of the Marshall Plan. Back then the US spent 3% of its GDP on foreign aid, 30 times more than it does now. Re-establishment of infrastructure provided a basis for further progress. Whether any parts of the cities should have been left as a reminder of war, is an arguable point.

In Cologne most of the churches were severely damaged and indeed some nearly totally destroyed during the war. Almost all have been rebuilt and beautifully restored, although some of the internal decorative work on ceilings and arches has gone. Small displays of drawings and photographs inside show the history of destruction and rebuilding over eight centuries.

One church, St Alban’s near the 12th century Romanesque Rathaus (town hall), remains as it was destroyed in World War 2. Through the crumbled cavernous interior with its broken walls and pockmarked floors, there through iron bars some 20 metres away, are two statues, two parents on their knees grieving. Just as artist Kathe Kollwitz’s Mother and Dead Son or Pieta in the memorial to war and tyranny in the Neue Wache on the Unter den Linden in Berlin (a building once housing the Russian Memorial to the Unknown Soldier), these Kollwitz pieces bring us up rigid. Look on these pieces and contemplate humanity and inhumanity and whether we all count! Go to the Kathe Kollwitz Museum and wring your heart some more at the grief and despair of peasant protesters and mothers of dead soldiers. (Kollwitz’s son Peter died on Flanders’ fields in 1914.)


Rachel Seiffert has published four novels, all dealing with conflict. Seiffert is the daughter of a German mother and an Australian father and now lives in London. Her first book The Dark Room (Heineman 2001) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 and the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, it was winner of the LA TimesPrize for First Fiction and a Betty Trask Award in 2002. One of the stories was made into a film Lore  released 2012written by Robin Mukherjee, co-written and directed by Cate Shortland.

Other books have also been listed for awards. Seiffert was named as one of Granta’s 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, and  in 2011 received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her books have been translated into ten languages.

The Dark Room is three novellas, three stories telling of German people before, during and after World War 2. In the first Helmut, a shy adolescent boy working part time in a Berlin photographic shop and roaming around the city in the horrors of the closing months of the war.  He sees trains and people coming and going, soldiers, refugees, and in the streets as the war progresses, people being beaten. Eventually, the bombing, the disappearance of his parents and the destruction of his home… the refugee masses flood back through Berlin. …. As they pass they tell tales of emaciation and ashes, of stinking smoke and pits full of bodies… of an army the size of a continent, angry and brutal and without mercy…”

As the war ends in Bavaria the young girl Lore is urged by her mother to take her sisters and brothers to their grandmother in Hamburg before she and Lore’s father are taken away by American soldiers. Germany has been divided by the occupying powers, people subsist amongst the ruins of their houses, soldiers are on patrol. Walking, travelling by boat, by trains, hiding in trains, trading jewellery for food and even warm water for washing, Lore eventually brings the children to Hamburg. Recognised by her grandmother’s maid, she reaches the ruins of her grandmother’s house.

Lore and the children board a ferry for a ride. Leaving the children in the cabin Lore steps out on to the deck into the wind. Moving to the front of the ferry “she takes the full force of the wind as it claws her skin, tears through her clothes. She unbuttons her coat and lets the wind rip it open, pounding her ears. She stretches her mouth wide, lets the winter rush down past her lungs and fill her with its bitter chill. Lore hears and feels only air. Her eyes are closed, seeing nothing, streaming bitter tears.”

The last story is perhaps the most poignant. Set in the mid 1990s it tells of the struggle of the young man Micha to come to terms with his grandfather’s past. He wasn’t an ordinary soldier but a member of the Waffen SS in what is now Belarus and might have been involved in hideous crimes against Jewish and other persons before being captured by the Russians. Unable to find out anything from libraries and archives in Hannover, Micha eventually travels to Belarus to seek further information from a small museum, from old people who were alive at the time. But these people don’t want to say anything.

Micha can’t bear to show his grandfather’s photo to the old man in the village who might remember him. It is too hard. The words don’t come, only tears, his mouth is thick, his eyes are full, the old woman [Elena) hands him some sheets of toilet paper from her bag. On another visit he talks again with the old man. People did the German’s dirty work, killing Jews, the old man collaborated. They just did it, no one spoke against it. In the evening there was plenty to eat and drink and loud music to listen to. …. Was his grandfather a murderer? Micha finds it difficult to talk with his grandmother:  when his grandfather came back from the war he lost control on occasions, got drunk. Mischa stops his weekly visits.

When the old man in Belarus dies, Elena telephones asking Micha to return to the village. Elena takes him to the forest and shows him where the Jews and others were shot. “Elena kneels. Shoulders shaking. Crying… Walks across the clearing that is also a grave.” Afterwards Elena goes with him to the bus station to return to Hannover. “She knew how many were killed. And when he came back, she … found her measure of blame and loved him.” As the train pulls in Elena gives him bread and fruit for the journey. “Elena speaks … Micha doesn’t understand anything… She speaks and speaks, grasping Micha’s hands knowing he doesn’t understand.”

She walks to the end of the platform as the train moves away, Micha watches and waves until she is out of sight. “The bright leaves around the clearing are still in Micha’s head, the soft earth. The terrible thought catching up with him, through the day of sickness and sunlight and Elena’s voice and tears… Micha knows why she did it, why she took him there…” Perhaps Micha at last reconciles himself to what his grandfather did and how his grandmother coped with it.


Bernard Schlinck’s book The Reader tells of a relationship Michael, aged15, has with an older woman, Hanna Schmidt. The book was made into a film written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry starring Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet and David Kross. It was the last film for producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, both of whom had died before it was released in December 2008. Winslet won a number of awards for her role, including Academy Award for Best Actress. The film itself was nominated for several other major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Hanna was not able to read, which was part of the basis on which the early relationship developed: Michael read to her. Hanna much later is revealed to have been an SS concentration camp guard; she is accused of having left women prisoners to burn to death in a locked church, ignited in the course of an Allied air raid. Evidence of Hanna’s behaviour is given by other women who were also guards at the camp. As historian Inga Clendinnen wrote in The Australian (4 March 2009) “The Reader generated passionate moral and political discussion …” Schlinck was accused of being too soft on the character of Hanna: perhaps Schlinck himself had an SS mistress when he was a schoolboy.

Schlinck, I think, makes the point that those who collaborated during the war were ordinary people and it is ordinary people who can do dreadful things. On the other hand, there are those who want to brand such people as inherently evil, those who object to the portrayal of Adolf Hitler as an ordinary person in the film Downfall.

Of course the awful events of war can never be forgotten. Since 1945 successive German Chancellors and Governments have strongly condemned any statement or action which celebrates Nazism. But to so many others these events and these actions of the last 50 years are not known, nothing can make any difference or remove the justifiable hatred. But do those who accuse Europeans of being ready to appease all dictators – remember those dreadful epithets used by then US Secretary for Defence Rumsfeld – know of the wars fought across Europe for centuries, of the death and destruction, the millions killed, the children offering themselves for prostitution to German soldiers in the Tuileries in 1871 in exchange for a piece of bread?

Reading any account of the horrors of the world wars or subsequent brutal conflicts makes it hard to still believe that ordinary people can do these things, the unmentionable atrocities in Vietnam, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Iraq, the horn of Africa and elsewhere. Could Australians do these things? Many would say no. But experiments into obedience by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961 revealed that most people, without reward or punishment, will comit unethical acts when asked to by someone in authority. People live up to the expectation that authority has of them. As Margaret Heffernan has pointed out in her work on “wilful blindness” recalled recently in the New Statesman in respect of the actions of the Murdochs and executives at News of the World in their endorsement of systematic gross intrusions into privacy. People would rather conform to what they believe is expected of them rather than stand out for a moral principle.

Anders Behring Breivik, whose bombing and shooting in Oslo on 22 July 2011 killed 73 people including many children, shocked people around the world. He was, according to a BBC reporter who grew up with him, a seemingly normal person. But media around the world rushed to brand the carnage the work of Islamic terrorists. Once it became evident that Breivik was a ‘white’ Christian Norwegian who set out to protest immigration of Muslims to Norway and Europe, some journalists asserted Breivik was nevertheless inspired by Islamic terrorists.

Australian servicemen visit Japanese people and the relatives of Japanese soldiers – Japanese government ministers even apologise for the past as did Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister on his visit to Australia in July 2014 where he addressed a joint stting of both houses of parliament. Australian servicemen visit Vietnam where Vietnamese people get on with their lives, they visit those against whom they fought. Australians, including more and more young people, go each year to Gallipoli and together with Turkish people contemplate the cliffs and cliff tops and the sea behind where lives were uselessly lost, largely due to the actions of British generals.

We don’t all count if we can’t face up to this past, if we don’t do everything to stop it happening again, if we simply draw the curtains on the present or turn our backs on the past. Celebrating fallen heroes “who gave their lives so we might be free” hardly seems to entirely fit the bill. Not if some of those wars could have been avoided, or worse if they were justified by lies told for political gain or in pursuit of a fabricated ideology, a piece of wilful blindness.

In Australia we lost thousands in the major wars. But we didn’t face the destruction of 90% of our towns, the disappearance of 95% of our citizens. We non-indigenous people didn’t! Our forebears were part of the history which was the closest thing to that, so many horrors visited on Aboriginal people. So does our civilised response to that have to be the contestation of every assertion of damage, the denial of every claim of removal, the striking out of every gain in the High Court, the legislating away of every favourable judgement, the hiding behind claims of practical reconciliation when they are practically neither equal nor equitable? Are we actually all here? And do we really all count? A Prime Minister apologises, people weep, then what?