Even when we die

I walked out of the exhibition at SMM in Hamburg at the end of a day looking at ships engines the size of most people’s houses, dehydrated and wondering if I had time to have a shower before the Inmarsat party in the evening, and back then, Inmarsat parties were legend. You never knew what might happen, apart from that everyone would be immaculately dressed, the Inmarsat crew would be working the whole time even if they were singing, dancing or just talking and the drinks would keep coming, on the company. What happened a couple of times later definitely wasn’t working, but the past as we all know is another country and that’s about enough detail I think.

I had time to have a shower if I didn’t walk back to my hotel but it had been a long day. There were mysteries in Hamburg. My hotel near the big, blackened railway station gave the lie to all the rubbish you ever need to hear about precision bombing. The station looked intact but it must have been rebuilt, massive in the middle of a plain of buildings that had obviously replaced the ones bombed flat all around it.

I walked through a little park then crossed a road, quite a big road, then into another park. It was about an hour before dark so far as I could judge and I could see the big Hamburg transmitting tower that made me think of old radio dials, the kind that used to have magic words written on them: Berlin, Hilversum, Luxemburg, Hamburg, Moscow, Home Service, back when you could smell the radio waves. I walked past a little lake and a small cafe and along a path by some trees. There were only one or two people in the park by now, apart from me. Then I saw it.

Swastika? No, sorry, no idea what you're talking about...
Swastika? No, sorry, no idea what you’re talking about…

I’d read about how all the Nazi symbols had been smashed off buildings after the war, how swastikas or hakenkreuz symbols clutched in stone eagle talons had been chiselled off buildings. I knew this. There are before and after photos all over the web.

I didn’t expect to come face to face with a huge monument in the park. In lots of ways it was the same as any other big stone memorial to Our Brave Boys. But it wasn’t. It was to Their Brave Boys. The Germans. The enemy. And I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Monument to the 76th Infantry Regiment. A real slap in the face.
Monument to the 76th Infantry Regiment.

That was 2003. I couldn’t find any mention of it in guide books and I wasn’t sure which park I’d been in and eventually, even whether it had all been a dream. They couldn’t have left a memorial celebrating Nazi soldiers standing. They burned the whole city down. About 40,000 were burned alive here, by us, the Allies, the RAF and the US Army Air Force. It was called Operation Gomorrah. You don’t have to know a lot of your Bible to know this was about removing a city from the map. Forget the fairy tales of the Memphis Belle going round on its bomb run again to miss the school next door to the factory. 150mph winds burning at 800 C don’t miss things. They had no intention of missing things. I didn’t understand how this memorial had survived. If it missed the bombing there must have been no shortage of people with chisels and hammers in June 1945 to take care of it.

But there it still is, at Dammtor. You can read about it here. I’m not sure why it stuck in my mind. Because it wasn’t like a war memorial. Because it seemed triumphant. Because Our Brave Boys were wearing the boots and the wrong-shaped helmet, the Stalhelm. Because they were Germans. Because like everyone of my generation, the War was this huge thing that grownups didn’t talk about. That wouldn’t go away.

A man with one arm lived up the road from us when I was a boy. My parents disapproved of him because he wasn’t married to the woman he was living with. Her daughter bore the mark of their shame. Please don’t think I’m joking. It wasn’t all like the Darling Buds of May growing up in the English countryside.

“He didn’t lose his arm in The War, you know.”

It was always there. It was there in the names of the Polish kids at my school, it was there in the reason why there was an Italian motorcycle shop. It was there in the candles burning on a Friday night in the front window of the small family of pale, dark-haired people who kept themselves to themselves down a dark lane, the parents younger than I am now, the two girls, Miriam and Rebecca. I never heard them shout or scream, the way any other children did, but maybe there’d been enough screaming in their family already.

“Germany must live, even when we die.”

I left the monument and got back and walked up the stairs in my hotel, past the huge sailing ship hanging from the ceiling in the lobby and found a small window at the top of the building that didn’t look right. As I looked at it more closely I could see that the glass was thicker at the bottom of the window than at the top. I felt sick because I knew what had happened.

The fires from the bombs dropped by the RAF had burned so hot that the glass in the window had started to melt, 100 feet above the street. Now try to read that again after you’ve wiped your eyes.

It doesn’t matter how much you blow your nose. It will never be all right. It doesn’t matter who was right or who was wrong. The bell tolls for all of us.

Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben müssen.

One of the inscriptions on the memorial says “Germany must live, even though we die.” Or thereabouts. Just by the passage of time almost everyone who put on a uniform back then, any uniform, has died now. Almost all of them. But Germany lived. It became something greater than practically anyone then could possibly imagine. A country without a war. Even when we die.



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