Thu 22 October 2020

Mike Stuchbery reflects on leaving the UK behind after a tumultuous three years.

It’s a strange feeling: the only thing I can liken it to is having stepped into some kind of parallel universe, albeit one largely absent of the anger, frustration and hyperbole that has coloured the last three years of British public life. 

Since arriving in Germany a week ago, both my local-born wife and I have been amazed at how much more… functional the place seems. A bureaucracy that works. Bustling main streets. Effective public transport. Most importantly, however, an optimism and hope absent from the streets of English cities and towns. 

Here’s the thing, though – life here in Stuttgart isn’t perfect. There’s a recession looming, tensions over migration remain and a sense that many of the industries responsive for past economic booms are on the way out. Yet such is the self-imposed insanity of the Brexit years that everything here seems more, well, successful.

The horrific events that have laid this land so low over the past century have also given it a kind of perspective and understanding of the dangers of fanaticism and xenophobia.

I’m teaching English to make ends meet as I establish myself here, and the mostly evening classes lend themselves to long rides on the U-Bahn during the day, exploring the valleys that radiate out from the city centre. The hills are covered in vineyards, church spires poking out from behind every few bends in the track.

Off the train, I wander to class with a coffee down streets that are a jumble of the centuries: half-timbered houses meet expressions of imperial ambition, alongside new constructions incorporating the burned-out shell of a previous building lost to bombs. 

At the crossroads of Europe, so to speak, this place has a long history of cultures meeting, melding. It’s also a place that has paid harshly for the excesses of nationalist fervour – the city was bombed almost flat just under 80 years ago. 

I can’t help but think that the horrific events that have laid this land so low over the past century have also given it a kind of perspective and understanding of the dangers of fanaticism and xenophobia that the United Kingdom has never had to fully grapple with. 

There are so many stories here – stories of war, desperation, love, loss, hate and ignorance, written into the very stones of the streets I pass down every day. Sometimes they’re actually incised with the names of Holocaust dead, in the form of the stolpersteine

Solpersteine from Stuttgart – source Wikimedia

‘We’ won that last war against these people, but in a very real way, we also lost. In some regards, Great Britain was held back by its victory. It never had to do the soul-searching that the Germans did, never had to completely rebuild from the burning cinders of almost total annihilation. 

I loved my life in England for all the hard times, and there was, and is, a very real kindness and decency at the heart of most of those I met. They shouldn’t have to be put into a position where the same forces that tore part Germany are given free rein around them. 

Let me be clear – those forces are unleashed. The far-right is on the march, buoyed by American and Russian interests. Terrorist threats increasingly are homegrown, from white British communities. Hate crimes are spiralling. 

It’s a fool’s hope, but I pray that there’s a way back from the divisions, shifting, yawning and widening across British society. I pray that the Irish border does not once again become a flashpoint for violence and bloodshed. I pray that we’re not a captive audience here to old, awakened horrors. 

I tell stories of the past – it’s what I feel most comfortable doing. I just hope that I’m not telling a tale one day that has today’s events as the prelude to something truly awful. 

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