WORLD MATTERS: The Brexit sorrow of an Anglo-German couple

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By Uwe Siemon-Netto

“Oh dear, I’d better stay in bed,” groaned my English wife, Gillian, when I woke her on Friday morning with the sad news that her compatriots had voted to leave the European Union. Before pulling the blanket over her head she said, “Life will never be the same again.”

Before our wedding in ’62 ...
Before our wedding in ’62 …

Four hours later, she rose, showered, dressed in black and went out with three elderly, black-clad Englishwomen to have lunch in the restaurant “La Lavalette” in our little market town of Villebois-Lavalette in the Charente region of France.

All four have had reasons to mourn. As for Gillian, her reason was evident.

Indeed! More than half a century ago, we fulfilled for our part the vision of conciliation Winston Churchill had confided to his wife, Clementine, shortly after World War II: “If only I were ten years younger, I could perhaps become the first president of the United States of Europe.”

... and today.
… and today.

We wanted to leave our gruesome wartime memories behind us. We had both lost our homes to bombings, Gillian in Southampton and I in Leipzig, Germany. We had stood before smoldering piles of rubble knowing that they contained the shredded corpses of people we loved. I was eight years old when my family buried my aunt Martha’s right hand, the only recognizable part of her body; it was identified by the wedding band on her ring finger.

We had witnessed the bloody consequences of hatred and vowed to never let that sentiment enter our lives again, but now we note with sadness, disgust and fury that the next generation succumbed to demons we believed exorcized once and forever. When we met and married in 1962, we were so full of hope and buoyancy, dancing the Twist in the Saddle Room on Park Lane, London’s first discotheque.

Like many other young Europeans at that time, we just wanted to love each other, and we kept our marriage vows for 54 years so far, eleven years longer than the United Kingdom managed to persevere in the European Union where by all logical measures, economic, political and otherwise UK should have remained, especially with the world around us in turmoil.

Yes, we are angry beyond measure because we have seen, heard and read the gradual buildup of bigotry that was the handiwork of narrow-minded ideologues and – I state this based on my 60 years in international journalism – contemptible tabloid reporters and editors, notably those working for Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and his now defunct News of the World.

I myself was the managing editor of a German tabloid once composing wicked headlines. But never – and I also can say for all my competitors in Germany – never ever were these intended to stir hatred against the people of other nations. This much we had learned from our dreadful past. In fact there exists no equivalent in the German language for “Hun” and “Kraut” (German), “Frog” (Frenchman) and “Wop” (Italian), invectives denigrating England’s European neighbors.

As a journalist, I may borrow a line from Emila Zola: “J’accuse”! I accuse irresponsible poseurs in my noble craft of devoting decades to undoing gratuitously the conciliatory work Winston Churchill, a former journalist, had started when he initiated the process of reconciliation by suggesting the formation of the United States of Europe in his Zurich speech of September 19, 1946.

As a journalist, I accuse those who fraudulently call themselves journalists of helping to create an atmosphere of odium that might well have contributed to the murder of Jo Cox, a pro-EU member of parliament and mother of two children. Oh, you had nothing to do with this, you say? Pray dive into those cesspools of contemporary online journalism, those venomous readers’ blogs under your repulsive diatribes against the European Union and its British advocates; plumb the spirit in which they were written: This wasn’t the spirit of Winston Churchill; it was the spirit of Joseph Goebbels!

Once I challenged a star columnist of the Daily Telegraph, another EU-hating London paper, after reading one of his habitual broadsides against our community of nations, which included one the British Europhobes’ constant allusions to World War II. Not that I would ever deny how annoyingly the E.U. is often run, but for all its shortcomings it has contributed strongly to the prosperity and peace Gillian’s and my generation desired so fervently.

But explaining this to him in an email, I gave him an opportunity to dig into his treasure of clichés. “You just proved again that Germans have no sense of humor,” I he wrote back.

“My father was blinded in World War I,” I answered. “My wife and I spend our childhood in air raid shelters fearing for our lives night after night. When it was over I experienced a legacy of shame, I caught tuberculosis I was only allowed 700 calories a day. Given all that, I am not ashamed of being called a humorless Hun after responding to flippant remarks about the war.”

To his credit, he apologized. But this didn’t stop his anti-European polemics.

In the eyes of my generation of reporters, an alien new tribe of journalists has shaped half of British public opinion on the subject of Europe (and, I hasten to add, American opinion as well, to wit Peggy Noonan’s inanely one-sided “Declarations” in the Wall Street Journal on the weekend before the Brexit vote). When I was a war correspondent in Vietnam and the Middle East I always traveled in the company of splendid British colleagues, and we teased each other mercilessly, but always in a self-deprecating manner. One of my most amusing friends in the trade was Donald Wise of the Daily Mirror, a former major in the British commandos with the looks of David Niven.

Once following the Six-Day War in 1967, which I had covered from the Arab side, Donald met on the banks of the Jordan River. Israel had just opened the Allenby Bridge allowing Palestinian refugees to return from Amman back to their homes on the occupied West Bank. I accompanied them to the checkpoint. Donald stood on the other side of the Jordan surrounded by comely Israeli women soldiers.

“Hey, Uwe, you old Nazi, see what you are getting for being such an old Nazi,” he shouted pointing at the veiled women I was with.

“And see what I’ve got for not being an old Nazi,” he continued squeezing two delicious wenches in mini-skirted uniforms.

The Israeli soldiers hissed and threatening to lob rock against me. “Stop this,” Donald commanded them with a crisp British officer’s voice. “This chap is no Nazi. He is my best friend. Don’t you dopey birds have a sense of humor?”

It is the staggering lack of this sense of self-irony combined with an absence of generosity among the current agitprop types posing as journalists Gillian I lament so much. Je les accuse! I accuse them of shamelessly conspiring with demagogues such as Boris Johnson, the Europhobic former mayor of London whose willful muddling of truths and facts in the Brexit campaign fits the unkempt way he presents himself in public: like an unmade bed. I charge them with two unforgivable offenses:

Firstly, they led the British electorate astray at a time when in the face of Vladimir Putin’s Russian menace, the huge international refugee crisis and the apocalyptic war declared on all of us nothing could be more important than European and transatlantic unity.

Secondly they persuaded the muddle-brained generation that followed Gillian’s and mine to vote against their very children who according to every poll fervently desired to be proudly British but committed Europeans. I wonder if they will ever forgive their parents.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 60 years, covering the U.K., North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto is the founder and director emeritus of the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Capistrano Beach, California.

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