Dear, Dear Germany,
I have been meaning to write for so long and now seems the right time as you celebrate 25 years of unity.
I have never told you this but I first became aware of you in the mid-1950’s growing up in Stratford, East London amongst the rubble of WWII air-raids. These ‘debris’ as we called them were exciting playgrounds for a young boy, sifting through the remains of terraced houses in the hope of some great find. I heard about you from the stories of my grandparents and parents; stories of the unexpected ways their lives changed; stories of borders shifting and territory changing hands.
These things are complicated for a child to grasp and in the mind of a child become just more adventure stories, more wars, another territory invaded and another assertion of political differences by old men remote and unknown to me. War was not sinister to my childhood, I ‘lost’ relatives that I never knew but no more than I had lost from illness, disease and pure chance. The terrible stories I read of things that adults called, ‘atrocities’ were to me just more history, other people’s history, adult’s history. This was not my history.
As childhood drew to a close and youth imposed its will on me I began to see things differently. You, Germany were not in fact one country but two, or rather a single country divided. I never understood your bifurcation. I had heard of the Berlin Wall and I imagined a line through the centre of Berlin that continued north and south through the rest of the country. No amount of imagining would have brought me to the conclusion that you could divide a country and in the process leave a city stranded in a new country, 110 miles across the border with a wall through its centre. I wonder what it has meant to you to have been two different countries?
But I was an ordinary London child and never left my own country before I was 17 years old. I knew of you but you had no knowledge of me. Why should you? What I knew of you at that time is partly from seeing news stories of protests in your East but in reality it was through sport that you captured my attention. In your West you became a great footballing nation that I regarded with respect and great rivalry. In your East I saw a very different picture of a nation excelling in Olympic sports. Sadly, over time this became tarnished with an ever-present cloud cast over the training methods and use of drugs. You seemed to be a great contradiction of a nation where discipline and hard work sometimes spilled over into excess and irregularity. Like a teenager full of energy, respect, pride, idealism and rebellion in equal measures. What would all this energy eventually produce in maturity?
As I reached maturity I must confess that several decades passed when I never thought of you at all. I was busy with my adult life of work and higher education and marriage and all that these things involve. You seemed to have little significance to my emerging independent life other than in the occasional idealistic conversations and discussion that break out between the newly mature; that confident, lacking-in-self-doubt period when all was clear to me about which World regimes were good and which were bad and why, and how we could solve all of that. You featured in these discussions alongside our grim view of Soviet life and the dour misery that we imagined was the life of your people.
The 1970’s and 1980’s for me was a world of continuous conflicts. The ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland had been rumbling on throughout my lifetime, intermittently interrupting my daily life with bomb scares and occasionally, actual bombs. The United States seemed to be locked into an endless series of wars of their own making in pursuit of ‘our’ freedoms in countries other than their own and you Germany, were two different countries. That was the normality and I saw no indication that this normality would ever change.
Then one day, or so it feels in recollection, you rejoined. Your amoebic separation reversed and you became one. A shift in normality had occurred. Strangely and despite our lack of acquaintance, I felt somehow uplifted by your unity, your liberation as I saw it. I was sharing an optimism for a country I hardly knew. You became united and your unity had a more dramatic impact on my consciousness than your separation ever had. It signalled to me that the unchangeable could change and the inevitable was now evitable. And yet I had never visited you – and still less had you visited me.
We moved into a new stage of our relationship in the 1990’s and we met for the first time, albeit through a series of one-night stands. Me calling on you for a meal and an overnight stop on the way to ski resorts in Austria, Switzerland or Italy. I loved those short times with you, sharing your table and a glass of your famous beers; a warm welcome to a tired traveller and a hearty “gute Reise” to send me on my way. Each time I imagined that these one-nights would lead us to something longer and deeper; a week or two weeks exploring with great care and concern the joys that you have to offer. But this hasn’t happened. We have not really moved on in that way.
So what I am writing to say to you is, can we move on now? Can we spend more time together in the future? I know it’s not your fault and you find it difficult to come to me and I will have to make the effort. Maybe I can get to know you properly; in truth I know so little about who you really are. But then, what and who is a nation?
Very best wishes for your celebration.
Vietnam, August 5th, 2015
About the author: Martin Stockley was born in 1954 and grew up amidst the debris of post WWII bomb damage in Stratford, East London, the second son of London born parents. He trained as a draughtsman in 1971 before stumbling accidentally into engineering design where an interest in the socio-cultural and economic behaviour of cities and places slowly became something of a compulsion. He founded his own consultancy practice in 1997 which he ran until stepping aside in 2013. Since May 2014 he has been living and working in Moscow along with his wife and 22 year old daughter.
Photo: Martin Stockley, 1962