Friday 28 December 2012

Bullets and mulled wine: Europe’s journey

Stadtwald forest: Germany

A sharp tip glinted out of the tree, having travelled through from the other side. Chopping the wood open revealed the small bullet to be as shiny as the day it had been fired, as Allied troops pressed into Germany in the closing months of World War II.

And there were more. This time a dull, blunt and rounded chunk of metal embedded deep into another tree: the remnant of a heavy machine gun and a reminder of the hell that had been unleashed here.  We were told it is common to find bullets and shrapnel embedded in these trees. 

We had come to the forest to cut a Christmas tree in the late days of December; an ancient tradition in this part of western Germany. The families we were the privileged guests of showed us around these quiet hills which, cloaked in freezing mist and joined by warm mulled wine with even warmer company, were a memorable part of this year’s Christmas for us. 

The contrast, for me, was profound and at once a reminder of how far Europe has travelled away from its blood soaked past but also of the risks that never really go away. 

After all there we were: a family from England who had met a family from Germany on holiday – in France. Standing in beautiful countryside and sharing traditions. That was the progress part.

But there we also were, in the same forest where our grandfathers had slaughtered one another; as a result of a political elite’s collective failure to address the rise of extremism which itself had been made possible by their failure to manage the global economy.

Sadly that last bit about the failure of elites and the rise of extremism is an increasingly accurate description of the countries of Southern Europe. When I was in Liberia earlier this year I met a Greek guy about the same age as me, in his mid thirties. He’d never been to Africa before and ended up in a fairly random job in West Africa simply because he had been so desperate to get out. He gave accounts of elderly people being wheeled out of care homes and left on the streets because their families could no longer afford the fees. That was terrible enough.

Golden Dawn rally: Greece
But then he mentioned something, in passing, which was even more troubling. Before he left he’d voted for the fascist Golden Dawn party, who now occupy seats in the Greek Parliament. When I asked him why he told me he wasn’t a fascist, he’d moved to Africa after all, but the political system “needed a shock”. It could have been straight out of the mouth of a suddenly impoverished 1930s worker in Weimar Germany, casting their vote for the Nazis, to "send a message".

While in India the appeal of Hitler seems to lie in a perception that he was a firm leader who "got things done". Many businesses now appear to be cashing in on the Nazi brand, and sales of Mein Kampf are described as "brisk". Those Indians who seem to admire Nazi Germany do not do so because they are filled with hate or are anti semitic, they appear to be responding to the appeal of charismatic leadership, which they describe feeling India lacks.

And therein lies the problem. If it is possible for the passage of time to sanitise a period even as blood drenched and cataclysmic as the Third Reich, then can we really be so complacent as to imagine it could never happen again?

That night in Germany, over more drinks and by the warmth of a fire, our hosts and I reflected on how our own generation’s world view had been shaped by the Cold War but how the fall of the Berlin Wall was now but a chapter in our children’s textbooks. To them the idea that they could be at war with each other was a bizarre notion. And yet one of our hosts as a girl had been taught how to use a rifle by her grandfather, fearful of a future return to the carnage and mass rape that accompanied the Russian advance into Germany from the East which he had experienced first-hand.

Stuff of textbooks
As Europeans it is tempting sometimes to focus only on the progress we’ve made, and the EU's role in that was recently recognised. But the unfolding political chaos in Greece, with the prospect of more countries to follow, surely means we have no room for complacency at all. And in the beautiful forests of western Germany trees bearing hidden bullets stand silently testament to that.


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