Tag Archives: the Stasi

A History Teacher’s Ramblings About History.

4 Sep

My last post about grief and caring was prompted by the tragic loss of a close friend, C. One conclusion I came to was that C had not completely disappeared, because he would live on in my memory. Although in one sense, C has “passed into history”, a phrase which has a chilling finality about it, in another sense he is still very much around, constantly reactivated by photos, music, places, conversations — in fact, a whole myriad of memory joggers. Memory, one of our most important links with History, not only adds an extra dimension to life but also gets bigger and richer as each year passes.

Imagine living life without memory or in other words: trying to exist without having a personal history. Imagine dragging a giant eraser behind us through life, obliterating our own past and the people in it. No wonder amnesia is seen as such a terrible affliction. My 88 year old dad might constantly lose his glasses or forget where he’s put his car keys, victims of his dodgy short-term memory, but he can use his clear long-term recollections to shine a powerful light on the past. He can transport us to distant eras. He is a time- traveller without the need of a Tardis. When my dad is around, one doesn’t need a history book or a flickering black and white film to find out what it was like: to grow up between the two World Wars,to experience the frightening reality of the Blitz or to learn how people survived on rations in the Age of Austerity. I too have a nugget strewn memory. I had to smile when I learnt about the current fashion for “vintage” weddings. It turns out that “vintage” in this context, means the 1940’s and 50’s, the very time when I was growing-up, having entered the world in 1949. Does this make me “vintage”? If so, does this make my dad “antique”? I wonder whether the wedding guests will be : eating bread and treacle, popping cod-liver oil capsules into their mouths, listening to Lonnie Donegan or Bill Haley, or perhaps even gathering round an open fire to do jig-saws or make proggy-mats. In a way though, despite my slightly mocking tone, I’m pleased that this shows that some of the younger generation are  respecting history and keeping it alive, rather than dismissing it as dead and gone.

Memory and history mean more to us ” oldies” because we have got more of it to draw upon. It’s like drawing water from an ever deepening well. ( The trouble is that advancing age means we dip into the well of memory with an increasingly leaky bucket!)  My young pupils at school often challenged me with the question:” What’s the point of History?” They could not see why they should study people and events that have now passed away. They could not see the relevance of the past to their lives today. How wrong they were but I’ll let them off as they were only 9 to 13. As a History teacher I always had to be ready for that awkward question from a pupil, a parent or an OFSTED inspector. Every good Scheme of Work begins with a vigorous defence of the subject and a justification for its place in the curriculum. So I had it all worked out ( hopefully!) History helps us understand why our world is as it is today. It enables us to learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can hopefully not repeat them ( although we constantly do!) History helps us to appreciate our nation’s heritage. This in turn enhances our sense of identity and feeling of belonging. However these rather abstract ideas only come to be grasped with the passage of time. I wonder just how many of the pupils who scoffed at having to learn about the Romans or the Normans, later spent their leisure time visiting ancient forts, villas, cathedrals or castles? Also, how many of those who moaned about having to study the Tudors or the Victorians, have later settled down to enjoy a costume-drama on the telly or at the cinema? History is not one of the more popular subjects at school and the numbers of students taking it at GCSE have dropped alarmingly. Yet the same subject is a staple of the entertainment and tourist industries, and now, one of its important strands — fashion — is featuring in young couples’ wedding plans. How many times have you seen a “vintage” car or even a horse and carriage transport the bride or groom to the ceremony? It’s ironic that a wedding is supposed to be all about 2 people pledging their FUTURE together, yet it is often celebrated in the trappings and traditions of the PAST!

The power of and importance of History has been recognised in many lands and across many time periods. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung knew the potency of History because they tried to use their powers to obliterate or re-write it. In China and S E Asia, ancestor worship was popular for many centuries and still hangs on today. In Vietnam, I visited old houses ( now semi-museums) where family shrines took pride of place in the people’s living rooms. Decorated with photos and mementoes of the honoured past relatives, they forged a valuable link with these significant people of a family’s past. At first this may seem to be a quaint and ancient tradition of the Far East. However, the same idea is alive and well in the “West” as evidenced by the growing craze for geneology. It’s a thriving interest promoted by such programmes as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Heir Hunters”. The really big spur has been the availability of more and more records through Internet sites such as Ancestry.com and Genes Reunited.

Delving into family-history and drawing up family trees has been one of my main interests since retiring. It’s an endless source of fascination. It is great fun solving “history mysteries” and shining a light into the darkness of the past. For a long time I ran away from my family as I was intent on being independent and forging my own identity. But later in life, through reading and discussions, I realized the mistake I had made. I could not move forward until I had ackowledged where I had come from. Every journey has to start somewhere and in the case of life’s journey the start is with one’s family. I could not continue pretending that I had magically morphed out of no-where. I had to go back and reconnect with my parents, siblings, cousins and with earlier ancestors through photos, documents and records. Only this week I was back in my place of birth, visiting my parents, and was absolutely thrilled to discover the 1930’s grave of my maternal Great- Grandparents in a large old churchyard. My delight at the minor miracle of this discovery may seem strange considering I knew that William and Hannah’s bodies had wasted away and I was just looking at an old engraved piece of stone. Yet despite this I felt strangely connected to these 2 people who contributed to my DNA. The discovery reminded me that I was part of something big and awesome. It reinforced my sense of who I am and where I belong. I may think I am unique ( which I am), but I am also half my mum and half my dad, and I’m a quarter of all my grandparents, an eighth of my great Grandparents, and so on. Looks and personality traits are passed down via our genes and we are foolish to try to ignore or deny this fact. Recently I watched Sebastian Coe in the latest series of “Who Do You Think You Are?”  noticing the same bump on the bridge of his nose that was clearly shown on the portraits of his ancestors from the 18th and 19th centuries. I like to think I’m musical. I can play the piano, have enjoyed singing in choirs for the past 20 plus years, have a large CD collection and have attended many gigs and concerts. Surprise, surprise — my Uncle Leslie was a professional singer, my mother, Jessie, sang in 3 choirs at the same time and my maternal grandfather Thomas, was a church organist, choir leader and a composer of hymns. Thomas also played the violin in the cinema to accompany the silent movies of the 20’s. I wonder where my interest came from? Our families link us to the past as well as to the future in a continuous timeline, with talents and traits perculating down through the generations.

Recently, I was quite shocked when 2 young adults told me that they were not really interested in family members who are now deceased and who they had never known. The subject arose when it was claimed that “celebs”on “Who Do You Think?” had to be faking their tears when seemingly getting upset about sad things that had happened to their ancestors. I concede that our so-called “celebrities” can be drama kings or queens and ham up their emotions for effect, but I cannot accept that Bruce Forsythe and J K Rowling were not both genuinely shocked and saddened to discover that their distant ancestors were buried in unmarked, pauper’s graves in neglected cemeteries. Being in the same family opens up the channels of empathy  — the ability to put oneself in another person’s place, even in a bygone era.

I have just finished reading an excellent book called “Stasiland” by Anne Funder. It is about life in the former German Democratic Republic, a communist, totalitarian state which controlled almost every aspect of its citizens lives. It did this through its notorious secret police, the Stasi, the natural heirs of the Nazi’s Gestapo. It was inevitable that some of the stories would be sad and dispiriting. I was challenged about why I wanted to read such a book. This was a good question. I thought to myself: why did I want to depress myself by finding out about horrible events that happened to people of another nation at a time now gone by? Shouldn’t I be indifferent to the lives of these foreign strangers from the past?  The answer soon came to me. Just like a mountaineer is drawn to tackle the Matterhorn or Everest simply ” because they are there”, so a history buff is drawn to find out about past  events simply “because they happened.” Moreover, such events may have important lessons to teach us. Reading “Stasiland”, as with all good pieces of history, provided me with with much food for thought. How would you feel if someone deliberately tried to wipe out your history and also your country’s history? This is what actually happened to tens of thousands of citizens of the former GDR, when the Stasi shredded countless files that they had kept on their own population. When the Communist regime finally collapsed along with its infamous Berlin Wall, the Stasi desperately strove to get rid of all the evidence which implicated them in numerous crimes and abuses against the GDR’s citizens. When all the shredders were burnt out through frantic overuse, the Stasi employess continued to rip the files up by hand. But there were so many incriminating documents that it was impossible to destroy them all. Many survived and many others have been subsequently pieced back together by dedicated teams of puzzle-solvers. Large numbers of East Germans campaigned hard for the right to see their files even though the new authorities of the unified Germany would have been perfectly happy for this unhappy period in the nation’s history to be forgotten. In the same way, many Germans have tried to forget the grossly embarrassing horrors of the Third Reich. Some were happy to forget. However other citizens demanded to see their files. They wanted to find out why they had never got that job or what had really happened to their disappeared relative or colleague. These historical documents were the keys to explaining the puzzling mysteries of their past lives in a now extinct totalitarian regime. Their pasts were part of their lives and they didn’t want the documents that explained important aspects of their pasts to be shredded, destroyed and forgotten. I was fascinated that so many people wanted to rescue their unhappy pasts as represented by the Stasi files. These people did not want to be denied their own histories, event though those histories were often tragic and depressing. It was another reminder to me about how vitally important it is to feel connected. One cannot make sense of one’s own small piece of the jigsaw until one has seen the whole picture, or as much of it as possible.

I have come a long way in this ramble, from the importance of remembering my lost friend, to the challenges of my pupils, and on eventually to the East German people trying to rescue their personal files. This blog may have disintegrated into a shapeless mess. So I now have to rescue it by making connections between its constituent parts. And there we have the unifying theme: CONNECTIONS. Memory and the study of history connect us not only with other people but with other times and other places as well.. They connect us so that we can try to understand and come to terms with the grand scheme of things. These connections may weigh us down and sadden us at times but at other times can bring great satisfaction and joy.

The study of history and the activation of memory is an important way of showing respect for our ancestors, ackowledging and celebrating their existance, and recognising their contributions to our world. It helps and enriches our lives by explaining who we are and where we came from. It makes us feel linked with those who went before; those who created the world and the families that we are now a part of. Some may try to dismiss history as irrelevant and politicians may try to wipe it out or warp it to suit their idealogy, but trying to exist without a historical dimension or perspective is, in my opinion, consigning oneself to a shallow and impoverished existance. What else would you expect a former History teacher  to say?