Monday, 30 June 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 5 Into Germany (2)

Max and Freddy, whose English was quite good, took us across the frontier and dropped us in the middle of Aachen. George and I must have made a favourable impression on them, because they invited us to join them and some of their student friends that evening in a central Aachen bar. We said we would do our best to be there.

We found a park and idled away an hour or two in the late afternoon sun taking stock and watching children playing, at that time an innocent and unsuspect activity. At one point a small boy came up to us and chattered volubly about something or other. No orphan lines from Schubert or 'Battler' Britton seemed to suit the occasion, so I was reduced to abject interjections of Ach, so? at intervals. I had no idea what he was talking about. Presently he scampered off, maybe wondering what kind of lunatics, one (myself) with a little Union Jack not even sewn but glued on to his mid-blue beret, were taking their ease beneath an oak tree in the Westpark.

(It was probably at this moment that two linguistic seeds, first warmed into life over the previous few days in Flemish-speaking Belgium, started to sprout: the first a deep-rooted weed, a reluctance to travel to places where they spoke languages I knew nothing of; the second, a hardy lingua floribunda that has turned out to need constant dead-heading, an ambition to learn at least a smattering of as many languages as possible.)

We took stock. British attitudes towards Germans in general - Adèle was a delectable and particular exception: I could make her the heroine of a novel in the role of (h'm!) a sacrificial virgin - at that time swirled about uncertainly, a nasty mix of distrust, phobia, unforgiving memory, 'Battler' Britton jingoism and Gestapo bogeymen. Everyone was aware of the Shoah and other Nazi genocidal initiatives, but I don't think the full extent of these ghastly outrages was then appreciated. Russian-occupied East Germany, very roughly the former Prussia, was an Iron Curtain frontier showcase of Stalinist communism managed by Kremlin puppet-masters, where the Stasi was really the Gestapo under another guise. West Germany was still occupied by Allied forces, and it wasn't difficult to imagine that the natives would have at least an ambivalent attitude towards them. The United Kingdom was unique among non-neutral western European nations in having no experience (except in the Channel Islands) of day-to-day subjection to foreign troops, and it might well be that the British, for all their delusions of colonial administrative prowess, weren't hugely popular.

It seemed to us, too, that everyone we knew had some experience, at a greater or lesser remove, of losing someone, friend, neighbour, colleague or relation, in uniform or not, as a result of the war. George had lost an uncle in the Royal Artillery. In my case the godfather I never knew had gone down with HMS Gambia in 1943, and was no more than a name on the Royal Navy memorial on Plymouth Hoe and a clutch of lively memories in my mother's mind. It was more than likely that Max and Freddy, of our generation and born during the war, could tell of closer personal losses than these.

Aachen had suffered badly. Ravages of war were still evident, blasted ruinous spaces overgrown with rosebay willowherb among the footings of jury-rig wooden buttresses shoring up leaning walls, hastily built blocks of flats and a dearth of middle-aged men. Local memories must still have been potent: Aachen was the first German town to be freed of Nazism by the advancing Americans in October 1944. The population had been ordered to evacuate the town and to sabotage its amenities, leaving behind an urban waste for the approaching US troops. 4000 Aacheners disobeyed, and the Bürgermeister they elected after liberation was subsequently murdered by a Gestapo hit squad. The town was re-taken that winter in the course of the Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, to be finally liberated in early 1945. Neither George nor I had the slightest experience of the ebb and flow of warring armies, of conquest and re-conquest, resistance and reprisal of fifteen years beforehand. How would we be received by Aacheners of our own generation?

As it happened, very well indeed.

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