Is Europe’s shared history still shared?

Black dogs no longer bite

The more Big Words are spoken about Europe’s shared history, about ‘no more war’ and ‘united we stand strong’, the more people think of the anonymous technocracy in Brussels. In how far do we mind our shared nightmares? It is a question that was incorporated in many of the ‘Grand Tour’ films at the IFFR.

When you like thinking about the importance of history, you should consider the following: a class of secondary school pupils sits on a bus on its way to a former concentration camp. The teacher prepares them for what lies ahead. He reads from an English text: ‘Here, over an acre of ground, lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which.’ A good listener immediately recognises the words that bbc reporter Richard Dimbleby spoke during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Dimbleby describes how a woman presses her wrapped up baby upon a soldier screaming he should give it milk. When he unwrapped it he saw the baby had been dead for days. ‘This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life’, was Dimbleby’s stone cold summary.

The children are German. Realise that your grandparents are responsible for this, the teacher says. People we are related to, people we know. When they enter the camp through the gate that says ‘Arbeit macht Frei’, another school class passes them; all the children wear yarmulkes. The two classes shun eye contact, the atmosphere is tense. In the courtyard the teacher asks what the children see here, what they think, but the children look away dejectedly, no one wants to speak.

Up to here this is not only Europe’s foundation, it is also Europe’s dream. It is the foundation because for political idealists like Jean Monnet the European Union not only sprang from money, gas and coals, but from a ‘never again’ principle, the idea that conflicts born from nationalism, just like World War 2, can only be prevented when states rise above that nationalism by close collaboration and shared rights and duties. ‘We do not connect states, we connect people’, said Monnet. This reconciling outlook was shaped by a shared history, which is maintained by sharing it again and again. It is part of the European Bildung. By visiting a concentration camp children can learn more than they can by reading history books. It makes the past physical, touchable, visible. Pupils can open and close the iron hatches on the incinerators – look, the past does still exist, it is all around you.

But that is not what really happens when children are on a school outing, as is shown by young German filmmaker Frauke Finsterwalder (1975) in her film Finsterworld, from 2013. In the courtyard the children do not look away because they are troubled by history, but because they are bored. When the Jewish school class passes, the atmosphere is not tense because one class is German and the other Jewish, but because the teacher or guide of the Jewish class is stunning and the shy boys hardly dare to look at her (the alpha male does give her a flirtatious look, to which she responds with a furious gaze). One girl opens one of the heavy furnace doors; as an ultimate act of frustration the class bully pushes her in and locks the door.

Yes, but the film is fiction, you can oppose. It is not real. Of course, but the same goes for the European dream

Yes, but the film is fiction, you can oppose. It is not real. Of course, but the same goes for the European dream. It is an ideal and ideals have an on-and-off relationship with actual practice. Regarding the knowledge of history, Finsterwalder seems to employ even more perspectives. When two of the class’s braggarts want to provoke their teacher, they ironically start on the British: didn’t they build concentration camps as early as the Boer wars? Weren’t the German camps much more effective? Earlier that day during the bus trip the pupils helped a classmate ‘escape’ who did not feel like joining anymore. The teacher is furious. ‘All right’, he says, ‘before Monday you will all write an essay on Marinus van der Lubbe and the fire in the Reichstag!’ In the first case knowledge of history has become a possibility for ironic relativization, in the second case in a trice history has turned into a form of punishment.

Finsterwalder seems to play a visual joke as well: the school class only consists of boys and girls with blond hair and blue eyes, überchildren straight from a Hitler Jugend catalogue. It is as if the Lebensborn breeding programmes never stopped functioning. The complete disconnection from the past cannot be bigger, though. When the teacher tells the pupils, in a somewhat firm tone of voice, to be back in time after a toilet break, they confirm his ‘order’ with a giggling ‘Heil Hitler!’ The teacher is not angry, he knows who he’s dealing with: they only say it to be funny, it does not mean anything.

But when the school class’s ‘Heil Hitler’ truly does not have any meaning, why does Finsterwalder pay so much attention to it?

This may probably be a too one-dimensional reading of Finsterworld. It is a mosaic, in which the school class is only one of the storylines. The diverse characters reflect on contemporary Germany dragging itself through the crisis while simultaneously leading European cooperation. Just like many other countries it asks itself how much of its national identity will be relinquished. Finsterwalder used extra light in her film as if to make her dark world even more visible: the day is so sunny no shadow can be found. Summer appears to have banished the dark.

A film like Finsterworld seems to beg the question: ‘What if we no longer fear our nightmares?’

It is of course not a small thing to want to say something about Europe. As a writer or filmmaker, or for that matter a politician, Europe is the biggest PR problem in the public sector. The more Big Words are spoken about a shared history, about ‘united we stand strong’, the more people think of the anonymous technocracy in Brussels, of giving up specific cultural characteristics for an indefinable bigger cause.

When speaking of Europe it is wise to employ a language as indirect as possible. One of the smartest novels about Europe is still Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs (1992). It might very well happen that only after a second reading you realise the novel is about Europe – it is the story of a man who tries to reconstruct an event in the life of his parents in law. On their honeymoon in the South of France just after the war his mother in law was attacked by two black dogs the size of donkeys. According to the locals they had been owned by the SS and used to intimidate and torture prisoners. For the mother in law it was a life changing, almost mystical experience, which made her give up her life in England and focus on a spiritual existence. She explained to her son in law: ‘These animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. The evil I’m talking about lives in us all. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself, then it sinks back and waits. It’s something in our hearts.’

He relates her words to his father in law, who immediately dismisses them. The incident made her turn spiritual, whereas he only got more rational. I’ll tell you whom she had to stand up to that day, he says – to a heavy lunch and vicious village gossip.

You can stick various allegories on McEwan’s story, you can look at the dogs and the young couple as different metaphors, but the most important concept is that black dogs are roaming Europe, ghosts of nightmares of olden days that can at any given moment raise their ugly heads again. A film like Finsterworld seems to beg the question: ‘What if we no longer fear our nightmares?’

What kind of moral appeal does a nightmare like Bergen-Belsen have in a time of ‘hashtag YOLOCAUST’?

It is an all-encompassing question, when you talk about Europe. What kind of moral appeal does a nightmare like Bergen-Belsen have in a time of ‘hashtag YOLOCAUST’, a word popular with youngsters who on their way to a concentration camp were twittering roguish selfies? Or should the question be: what is the residual value of Europe’s shared identity? How deterrent or uniting is that history?

In the short film Chigger Ale (by Ethiopian director Fanta Ananas) a small, dark coloured Hitler walks into a café in Addis Ababa. He has the postage stamp moustache, the cap with a skull and a swastika around his arm. For a moment the music stops, but then everyone parties on. Women invite Hitler for a dance, but when he finally agrees, they pull the paste moustache from his upper lip.

He leaves the café resentfully, but outside a couple of boys grab his cap and start throwing it around between them. No one is afraid of Hitler; out of pity they hand him back his cap. He goes home where he cuts a new paste moustache. Like a bullied child he sits shivering behind his desk.

More poetic is the film Der Wille zur Macht, in which Mexican director Pablo Sigg tells the story of an anti-semitic colony, which was founded in Paraguay at the end of the nineteenth century by Nietzsche’s sister and her husband, inspired as they were by Richard Wagner. The ideal was to create a racially pure ‘Nueva Germania’ in the jungle, reality turned out differently. At the beginning of the 21st century remnants of the colony are still there, largely overgrown by the encroaching jungle, but two brothers still live there. Taciturn men with long beards, detached from the world, vestiges of ideas that never made it.

In the combination of the blond woman in her classic outfit and the Masai Leni Riefenstahl is not far off

Chigger Ale and Der Wille zur Macht are two out of fifteen films in the iffr’s programme component ‘Grand Tour’: fifteen films that should give a varied image of Europe. In bygone days the ‘Grand Tour’ formed part of the intellectual and cultural Bildung of Europe’s youngest generation. They visited the Parthenon in Athens, the Uffizi gallery in Florence, the Colosseum in Rome and the hôtels particuliers of Paris. Young men could apply themselves to fencing, young ladies to fashion. In all destinations classical culture from antiquity was coupled with culture from the High Renaissance. Edward Gibbon, author of the famous book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which made him the founder of modern British historiography, deemed it the only fitting conclusion to the upbringing of a young scholar. His own arrival in Rome as a student always stuck in his memory, he considered it the decisive moment to start on his Decline and Fall: ‘… at the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye.’

Nowadays, there are not many Europeans who take on this educational journey. For the same amount of money price fighters can fly you to climes that are farther afield and warmer. Today the Grand Tour seems to be reserved for the Chinese, not specifically for the elite, but for the Chinese bourgeoisie for whom the trip through Europe is considered the ultimate status symbol; Europe in six days that is. Half an hour in the Van Gogh Museum (plus ten minutes in the gift shop) and then back on the bus.

For The New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos went on such a trip. With a hint of pleasure he jotted down what the Chinese guide was telling about the European: ‘The European wakes around nine o’clock. Right, he thinks, let’s have a cup of coffee!’ The passengers were already cracking up at the first sentence, because who gets up at nine? Who has the time to then leisurely drink a cup of coffee? No, Europeans were certainly no triers, but the passengers had to agree that they surely had culture.

In a way the Chinese hordes are in search of the classic, traditional Europe, the nostalgic image of Europe we ourselves would like to see more of, as becomes obvious in Dutch television programmes such as Boer zoekt vrouw (Farmer seeks wife) and Ik hou van Holland (I love Holland). Deep in our hearts we would like to see ourselves decked out in Delft Blue. You can also see it in films from other countries: in the crazy Danish film Spies Gilstrup for example, where a freethinking entrepreneur and a corpulent, thick-witted lawyer with rather radical ideas about taxes start a travel agency, focusing on mass tourism. The cars they drive, the typical geometric wallpaper, their outrageous clothes, and the dolled up hair styles of the Playboy bunnies surrounding them: it is the 1960s and 1970s all right, but heavily accentuated. Director Christoffer Boe shows us the past like it probably never looked, but how we gladly like to remember it: as a free and happy country without any tiresome restrictions.

Or in Ida, by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, in which novice Anna is on the verge of entering a convent, but is requested to first contact her only living relative, an arrogant, chain-smoking aunt, who tells her she is Jewish. Together they traverse Poland in search of the place where their family disappeared and what is left of their patrimony. The film shows a typically Polish story about the Catholic Church and the shameful manner of speaking about the fate of the Jewish people during the war. As a matter of course there is hardly anything left of Ida’s patrimony. The people who now inhabit the houses her family had to leave behind consequently play dumb. Here? No, there were no Jews living here. Pawlikowski shot Ida in black and white, which makes for an increased historical feel, but his Poland is an abstraction. Timeless, bare. The roads are empty, no people on the land. The country resembles an idea that has been abandoned.

How scary are our shared nightmares still? It is the question implicitly incorporated in many of the films and each time slightly varying answers are formulated. Just like in Finsterworld questions get asked, are put into perspective, but are not relinquished. Finsterworld ends with a scene that makes for a long think. A documentary maker (who is the victim in the most bizarre story of the mosaic, when it turns out the man has a fetish for dressing up as a large cuddly toy) travels to Africa, presumably Kenya. She is filmed from the back, again without any shadows appearing. The savannah is at her feet, an empty magical landscape, with a lonely mountain in the distance. The lighting is perfect and with her pretty tube skirt, her white blouse and her handbag the image resembles the advertisements Louis Vuitton made of celebrities on safari. But this woman’s back is to the viewer. She clings to her handbag and smokes. From afar a Masai woman in traditional red clothing walks up. When she reaches the documentary maker, she bums a cigarette off of her. The two women smoke silently. Again Frauke Finsterwalder leaves a lot to the imagination, but in the combination of the blond woman in her classic outfit and her neat hairdo and the Masai Leni Riefenstahl is not far off.

This will all of course be my own interpretation. But the fact that this Riefenstahl reference is the first thing that springs to mind is an indication of how the black dogs of Europe are still running and barking in our heads.


Joost de Vries is a novelist. His most recent work is De republiek (2013).

Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van dit essay.