Brexit and my family history

Verden,_Große_StraßeMy father is 82 years old. He was born in 1933 in Germany, a very auspicious time and place to come into the world. He spent the final months of the war hidden in a cellar as British bombs fell all around. When the Allies arrived, he defied the advice of his parents and crept out of their hiding place. He met his first British soldiers stationed in his family’s garage and they gave him some sweets and taught him his first few words of English.

After the war, his own father became Mayor of the local town, Verden an der Aller in Lower Saxony. Among his credentials were the fact that his family had had a travel agent’s which had helped a number of local Jews to escape the Nazis. Andreas Willmsen ( also became head of the local denazification committee. Had he stayed, my father would probably have competed his education and followed in his footsteps. As it was, he left Germany in 1950 after his Mother took off with a British serviceman. He remembers the incredibly complex procedure he faced in trying to cross so many borders, with so many documents and visas to be obtained. Working long hours in a hotel as a kitchen assistant in Guernsey, where his mother had settled, he became gravely ill. Much to his surprise, the head chef, a Frenchman who had been imprisoned under the Nazis and who consequently hated the Germans, nursed him like he was his own son.

Within a couple of years, my grandmother and her husband found another job in Sheffield, England and moved there. My father went with them. At some point he decided to apply for British nationality. On the form he saw the question: would you be prepared to do National Service in the British Army? Perplexed, he asked his father-in-law what he should do. Tick it, was the response. They’ll never take you.

They took him. For two years, first in the UK in Somerset and then in the Rhine Valley in Germany, he served in the British Army. The reception he got from his fellow soldiers was not always welcoming. He tells of having a bayonet held to his neck and repeatedly being referred to as ‘that bloody Jerry’. Nevetheless, he stuck it out and was eventually offered a commision. In the meantime, his culinary skills came in handy. He was appointed personal chef to the General of the British Forces in the region. One day the stately home where he was stationed received an honoured guest: the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip. The singlemost profound shock of my father’s life came when he was introduced to the Prince. Upon being told that the chef was German, he responded to my father in perfect German. There has never been a single day in my father’s life since then that he has not mentioned this experience at least six times.

His subsequent career as a chef took him to numerous countries: Kenya, Tanzania, the Bahamas, Barbados, Nigeria, always coming back to London between assignments. Wherever he went he met fellow Europeans: Dutch, French, Greeks, Portuguese. Many of them had reservations and prejudices against Germans, but he got to know them all on an individual level and their initial suspicions were overcome. Over the years, his European identity became a central element of who he was.

In 1973 Britain joined the Common Market, and my father was overjoyed. The Little Englander mentality, with its insular and resentful attitude to the rest of the world, seemed to be on the retreat. He still has a letter he received from Prime Minister Edward Heath in response to an enthusiastic letter he had written praising Britain’s foresightedness. Now my parents make regular visits to the grounds of Chatworth House in Derbyshire, and my father is hugely proud of the fact that the Duke and Duchess always recognise him and call him ‘The Hannoverian’. In addition to being a convinced European, he has long been something of an Anglophile.

That is not to say that he is enamoured with everything in the UK. For reasons best known to herself (mostly, she claims, related to an addiction to the crossword) my mother reads the Daily Mail. This means that for several decades my dad has been exposed to headlines written by people too young to have experienced war in Europe telling him that he doesn’t belong, that this is not his country. This puerile, hateful, reactionary set of attitudes provokes the response one might expect from someone with his particular background.

At his age now certain developments in the world pass him by: the internet, Russia’s increasing authoritarianism, Isis, refugees, the changing climate are all a bit too much for him to fit into his picture of the world, once that has become more fixed with age. At its centre is Europe, and its institutional form in the EU. For his generation, the social and economic relationship between Germany and France was the foundation of the building of a new, stable, peaceful Europe, a guarantee that the wars of the previous centuries will not be repeated.

I haven’t spoken to my dad very much since this whole puerile, blimpish, hateful referendum began. I suspect that at this stage, for all his long-standing contempt for those who want Europe as a historical project to fail, he has reached a state of equanimity. In his case, I think this is probably a good thing. I hope that he votes and that the result will not make him feel that his values have been exposed as worthless. But when I see characters like Gove, Farage and Johnson playing games with peace and stability, repeating the mistakes and follies that in the past have led to war, and pouring scorn on economists and historians who tell them very clearly what dangers they are leading us into, I feel a rage that goes back to before I was born, and an ancestral fear of how the egos and the will to power of men who have simply never grown up can lead to us to mass death and destruction beyond our current imaginings. In his own time, my father’s father fought in the trenches of the First World War. My dad learnt as a teenager what his own countrymen had been responsible for, and has fought throughout his life to make sense of that and to live a meaningful life in the light and dark of it. The building of European union, with all its myriad betrayals and contradictions, with all its corruption by corporate forces and its callousnessness and cowardice when it comes to the current refugee crisis, was an honest attempt to stop such horrors and barbarity from reoccurring. It is worth defending and fighting to improve, and Britain has no right to leave it.

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