How do we tell a tale of trauma?

Berlin

A recent trip to Berlin has made Ishbel Smith rethink how traumatic historical episodes are conveyed 

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27th May 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

It is a clear sign of age when you start arguing that “it can’t be that long” since a major historical event but this year does indeed mark 30 years since the infamous fall of the Berlin wall.  I was lucky to recently spend a long hot weekend in that city -  a place that I hadn’t visited since 1991, an historical blink of an eye since those incredulous events.  For those that have been and others who have been “entertained” by their mates’ travel tales, you may know the city is buzzing, born again and bizarrely beautiful with a thoroughly modern, youthful and socialist edge and just a sufficiency of old buildings to remind you that this is a place with a recorded narrative stretching back to 1251.

Of course, my memories of Berlin were more vague than I would have liked but the transformation of a city I recalled as still wall-scarred, war-pocked and world-wary is almost fable like.  But what was most striking for the story seeker that I am, is how the city has consciously chosen to tell its tale of how its history has made it as it is now. 

Three free museums had particular resonance – the Topography of Terror (a museum built on the site of the SS headquarters); the Holocaust museum (a stone’s throw from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate) and the Berlin Wall Memorial (laid out where people threw themselves out of windows into waiting netting held by West German firemen).  There was no sugar coating of the horrors that had been carefully co-ordinated, willingly witnessed and informedly enacted from where visitors now stood. 

What there was, however, was an incredible blend of photographs and stories which helped people grapple with the enormity of the traumas that had taken place during many of the visitors’ lifetimes.  I, for one, was a child of the Cold War, brought up by a generation of Brits who did not – or could not – teach about the Second World War, so recent was a conflict that had slain nearly 55 million people only 26 years before I was born. 

And the catalogue of trauma inflicted by humans on humans was at times utterly overwhelming.  I had huge awe for the people who had collated and curated what was being shared – their vision must have been hard to keep in focus in light of the context within which they planned.  I also admired their route of choice – stories.  Human, personal and detailed stories which provided a lens for tales that may otherwise have been unpalatable.  At the Topography of Terror, we were invited to focus on a picture of one man who sat with his arms crossed in a sea of obligatorily raised right arms at a shipyard in 1936 and asked to marvel at the courage he displayed in that act of mad defiance. 

In the Holocaust Museum, instead of bombarding us with numbers, we were given access to family photo albums of people at dinner, at play, at weddings and at work and then told some of the detail of where their journey took these individuals thereafter. And at the Berlin Wall Memorial, we listened to the recording made by a woman who threw herself from a top floor window while 9 months pregnant in a desperate (and successful) bid to give her child what she saw as a better life.   The stories were the access points that let us – the “audience” – relate and connect to a wider trauma that seems at times too big, too scary, too real to ever engage with.

But the photos that struck me most forcibly were those of the German school children with their evacuee labels round their necks, being prised from their mother’s arms and having to practice putting on their gas masks for fear of what their enemy may do to them in time of war.  For these were photos that could just as easily have been of British children.  They revealed an often untold and uncomfortable truth – that stories work most impactfully when we recognise ourselves in the other.

There are few sectors that understand the need to share stories more than this one

And why should this tale be told in this third sector of ours?  There are few sectors that understand the need to share stories more than this one and yet still we struggle to tell the difficult tales – the tales that people don’t want to hear as it reminds them that life is often hard, usually complex and nearly always emotional.  We prefer to memorialise and celebrate the good news stories and often choose to neglect the ones which challenge our perceptions of how we would like the world to be.  No-one would argue that we do not need the stories that inspire and encourage us but if my trip to Berlin taught me anything it is this – trauma untold can leave a festering sore that can result in fear, suspicion and mistrust.  To what extent is our current political and social crisis in the UK the consequence of our failure to do what the German nation has forced itself to do – look at the truth of what war can do to a nation and its people, both good and bad, victors or no?  By failing to learn from the past, we all too often make the same errors in the future. As Steve Turner once wrote: “History repeats itself.  Has to – no-one listens.” 

And as well as asking – should we tell this tale? – we should also be asking how we tell it:  in a way that is loyal and compassionate for those whose personal stories are being shared; in a voice that is genuine and empowered; and in a manner that engages with the audience so that they may recognise themselves in the other.  It is a difficult and challenging task – but it can result in rebirth, reform and reset which is surely what lies at the heart of so much of what we seek to achieve. 

Ishbel Smith is a communications consultant with Heart In Mouth