Sunday, 6 November 2011

Munich and forgetting: Phlebas

Let's get this out of the way. The associations are hardly good. There are the beer halls and Hitler with his long murderous marches down Ludwigstrasse, the Manchester United Munich air crash of 1958, and the Munich Olympics of 1972.

It is one thing to remember events in an official way, another to forget them in a private way. We are almost eighty years on from those marches. I am never sure of the value of forcing one generation to take on the guilt of another, nor of bathing old streets that now bear new names in the light that once damned them. I suspect it breeds a resentment that is, in the long run (say two or three generations on) likely to fester, until it results in new hatred. I am as deeply suspicious of statements such as The Germans are... as of The English are, or the Irish are... Not that there are no characteristics of any particular people but that they are never the sole ones, and are likely to be mixed up with characteristics that are entirely contrary. To limit a group to just one set of stereotypes, however fitting the stereotype in this or that case, is to be willfully stupid. It is, in effect, to continue the Nazi example, to damn all by caricature.

Munich suffered considerable destruction in the latter stages of the war (there is a set of postcards showing some it here). Little of that heavy grandeur remains now. There is the 1860's Rathaus in Neo-Gothic style, some restrained counter-reformation baroque churches, extremely rich in detail that is neatly contained in architectural panels, and some civic and commercial buildings, but the main impression is a kind of coolness, the colours generally varieties of silver and grey, the geometry quiet but firm, based almost entirely on the unadorned rectangle, everything planned, in proportion, and neatly fitting, almost sterile.

Sometimes I thought it was a civic disappearing act, the buildings so light, so unassertive, they were hardly there. Against a neutral sky they would vanish into neutrality. But then the firm geometries would slowly bring them back into reckoning. It is an architecture that consciously refuses to refer to the dangerous grandiosities of the early to mid-twentieth century.

Underneath them the shops in the shopping streets continue their elegant dialogue with sobriety. Black, white and grey with just a dash of sober green or dark vermilion. My bright green scarf was like a shrill whistle in the middle of a secular church service. People wait conscientiously at traffic lights even when nothing is coming. It is partly fear of the police but much more a kind of social understanding that life is better when rules are, to some extent at least, internalised. It is good manners.

The conformities are civil and decent. There remain the consciously Bavarian old in their hats and hunting jackets, and the waiters and waitresses in the big beer halls with their indulgence of folklor as a submerged, or at least contained, ardency. But these are exceptions. The young are relaxed and friendly. There is a great deal more smoking than in England now. There is a readiness to smile and engage in conversation where appropriate.

Do I forget and forgive Munich for my parents and all that lost family? There is nothing to forgive as far as my own generation and anyone younger goes. We are civilised people who can be intelligent and affectionate with each other. And we remember the heroic Scholls and those who, in Hans Fallada's book, Alone in Berlin, stood up and were counted at the cost of their lives when the monster arose.

Forgetting is a different matter, but I don't make any fuss of it, nor do I prepare myself for such visits by reminding myself of histories I know perfectly well at unconscious level. There is something horribly cheap about indulging history. History, after all, is much longer than our lives or our parents' lives and reaches beyond the personal. It runs in deep currents and counter-currents. It's salutary to know - in fact it is necessary - that it is cold down there where Phlebas the Phoenician rots and that currents undersea pick his bones in whispers.

Human kindness remains, and human good intentions. Consider Phlebas then, who was handsome and tall and not altogether unlike you, smiling over a table, brimming with warmth, offering to pay for the drinks.

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