I grew up believing that everything would only get better. One year before I was born on a Royal Air Force Base in the West of Germany, the Berlin wall had fallen and my mother’s country seemed poised on the brink of a bright new future. With a British father in the RAF and a German mother, born to refugees displaced after the end of World War II, my personal history always seemed intertwined with not only the turmoil of the war, but also with the Cold War that followed. I was the third child on my father’s side of the family to be born at RAF Brugge, which had become active in 1953 following the rapid expansion of NATO forces in Europe, while my mother received parcels with toys from distant relatives behind the Iron Curtain. Our beloved Sandmännchen doll had come from the GDR I was told as a child, the memory of a divided Germany still looming, but somehow already unimaginable.
Although I had no inkling of who Francis Fukuyama was, it seemed that throughout my early childhood and adolescence I had unwittingly subscribed to his interpretation that by the 1990s we had reached “the end of history”. The fall of the Iron Curtain signalled the triumph of Western liberal democracy, the natural endpoint of humanity’s social and political evolution. As a child, this seemed to make sense to me. I read voraciously on the history of World War II, consuming book after book hardly appropriate for my age, but I was drawn to these histories by a need to understand my country’s dark past. Above all, I was driven by a desire to reassure myself this could never happen again. I would search for signs that meant that history could never slide into that same direction, pointing out to myself how exceptional the circumstances were back then, distant and archaic, how adults had learned from their mistakes, how the past was the past, never to be repeated. Things would only get better.
Overall, my personal history seemed to confirm this. My parents’ parents had been enemies during the war and when my mother and father fell in love in the early 1980s, driven by my father’s desire to learn German to better understand his Wagner operas, these rifts had not yet fully healed. I understood, when I watched the Fawlty Towers episode ‘the Germans’ as an eight year old (due to a lack of age-appropriate videos at my grandparents’ house in Aylesbury), that my parents’ love was somehow remarkable in that it had, in its own very small way, bridged a divide between two countries. As a History PhD researcher, these transnational exchanges on the micro- and macro-level are my key research interest. In my study of homosexuality in postwar Britain I track currents of people and ideas, seeking to understand how processes of cultural exchange contributed to social progress. My parents’ love to me seemed to capture a spirit of transnational friendship and cooperation and of a Europe growing closer together.
Indeed, I myself felt in a very real way a child of two nations. I was living in Germany, but partaking in British culture in whatever small way I could, from reading Jaquelin Wilson novels, watching British property shows (which I now despise as a harbinger of the broken UK buy-to-let market) on the BBC World Service and writing my own Fawlty Towers play to be performed on the 1st of January 2000 to ring in the new millennium.
As a teenager, I was excited by European integration. I remember receiving a set of new Euro coins, all of the children in my class crowding round to see our new currency. Exchange and cooperation between nations seemed to point the way forward. I became more accustomed with my neighbouring European nations, crossing borders without needing to produce a passport, spending holidays in France and Italy where I felt proud that I had a gained a deep familiarity with these places and spoke their languages, shapeshifting effortlessly as a European citizen. Naively, I was still driven by a belief that we were set on a route towards progress. If there were any rights that hadn’t yet been granted to those deserving them it was only a matter of time. It was a given that the European project would continue and that, for all its faults, it offered European countries protection from rampant globalising forces and offered its citizens relative freedom and prosperity in an increasingly unstable world.
In my early twenties the UK seemed to exert an almost inescapable pull over me. I was drawn to the fascinating research being undertaken at Manchester University, the British sense of humour, multiculturalism, the wonderful and exciting art and music scene and above all, after 23-years of living in Germany and Switzerland, I wanted to live in the country which I had so carefully watched from afar.
I arrived in Manchester in August 2013 and in the past five years I have seen poverty spread and divides widen. I have seen the far-right rear its head and refer to refugees using a language I had thought unthinkable in a postwar European setting. The financial crisis and ensuing decade of austerity deeply hurt the country with vital services being scaled back throughout the country and the poor increasingly being marginalised, wages being frozen while living costs rose, which saw even working families relying on foodbanks. Despite my own privileged position and education, things started to feel more and more precarious as I watched many of my talented and well-educated friends struggle to make ends meet on zero hour contracts which left them without pay when they were ill and let go with only a days’ notice.
Homelessness in Manchester used to be confined to the city centre but it crept outwards continually, until the small suburb where I live saw a significant rise in its homeless population and in autumn a homeless man was living on our door step. A UN report stated that the UK benefits system was ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ – no wonder people voted for Brexit in protest of the political establishment. I stopped believing things would get better and as a historian, I became deeply concerned as I recognized patterns of political polarization that had accompanied Chancellor Brüning’s austerity policy in 1930s Germany. The centre, it seemed, was beginning to slip out from under us, society was dividing.
I was deeply disheartened by the Brexit vote, which I perceived as a vote against the spirit of cooperation and kinship that I valued so deeply.
Migrants had been made the scapegoat of ten years of Conservative austerity policy and the EU, which had afforded me so much hope and freedom, was cast as a hostile exterior force. Now I am even more disheartened at how the process is being carried out with the political class prioritising the survival of their own parties, the public being kept in the dark and purposefully misinformed. With none of the fanciful promised made of Brexit set to be delivered and ‘no deal’ plans being hashed out, which are as costly as they will be ineffective, I can only agree with former attorney general Dominic Grieve who claimed that Brexit was akin to committing ‘national suicide’. When I moved to Britain in 2013, I did not think we would keep troops on standby, stockpiling canned food and medicine and allocating £2 billion to prepare for the country crashing out of the EU five years later. I cannot help but feel we are at a point in history where crisis looms, blaring from the front page of every newspaper and future generations will struggle to understand why those in power did nothing to stop it.
In the past few months, Brexit has become an obsession for me and I realise that in attempting to unpick my own identity through the lens of Europe, something vital to me is about to be irrevocably lost. The foundations of my worldview have become undone and I feel a constant undercurrent of anxiety that has nothing to do with my own failings and successes. Instead I no longer feel that the country in which I have made my home is stable and dependable.
As a historian, I believe we have to document. I have learned that personal stories which are entwined with broader political and social currents matter and that they can help us make sense of what happened and what it was like to ‘really be there’. As citizens, I believe we have a responsibility to be watchful and to speak out at the sight of injustice and I believe what is currently happening in Britain is an injustice. It is a betrayal of those left behind, who were sold an anti-establishment dream by the very elites who are most out of touch. Now we are being further deceived as politicians try to achieve Brexit at any cost, even though they know the irreparable damage this will do to our economy, our global standing, even our ability to fight crime.
I can’t propose a decisive way forward. Personally, I support a People’s Vote in the hope that some of the immediate danger to our country can be averted, but I also sympathise with those who are weary of this path. I am also deeply troubled by the divisions that will remain. I wish our government would allocate funds so readily to the crisis facing our poorest and our underfunded NHS and social services, rather than pouring it into the ‘no-deal’ contingency plan it seems to have foolishly manoeuvred itself into. However, I do think it is important that we do not disengage from the political process. That we don’t obediently pipe down just because we are told that Brexit was ‘the will of the people’.
If there is in fact a second referendum, we have to make our voices heard. We have to search for what being part of Europe means to us and we have to remember the friendships, love stories and great adventures that were enabled by our membership in the EU. As a baby of European integration, it’s something I deeply believe in.