In 2020, Legenda published Alex Lloyd's new book Childhood, Memory, and the Nation: Young Lives under Nazism in Contemporary German Culture. Barbara Burns has this interview.
BB. How did you get interested in studying German?
AL. I grew up in Salisbury in the South of England and went to the local grammar school. German was the first foreign language I learnt, and I was fortunate to be able to take part in a school exchange to the Rhineland-Palatinate. My exchange partner and I got on really well and our families became friends. This gave me a reason to work hard at German, and to persevere when it came to the grammar. I was an enthusiastic reader (and writer) growing up, and I remember the first time I realised I could actually read novels and do creative writing in German. I also did a lot of singing at school, and German unlocked a whole world of song, from Lieder, to opera, to musical theatre.
BB. This book has grown out of your PhD thesis on the experience of childhood and adolescence under Nazism. How did you become engrossed in the theme of dealing with the legacy of the past?
AL. After my undergraduate degree I did a PGCE at the University of Oxford. When I began that year of teacher training, I read German author Günter Grass’s memoir Peeling the Onion. It describes Grass’s childhood and adolescence in Nazi Germany and explores feelings of guilt and shame around living with having been part of that political system. I had also read Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, another autobiographically informed text about a child’s experience living under Nazism. I found myself fascinated by questions Grass and Wolf raised. This was a generation that fuelled post-war German politics and culture, that had been indoctrinated and controlled to an unprecedented degree. They lived with a strange tension: they felt guilty or ashamed of having been involved in Nazism (in the Hitler Youth, in school, in the army), but the fact they had been children at the time meant that their feelings of culpability were denied. I realised I wanted to explore this further and so, after I finished the PGCE, I began a Master’s: rather than teaching children in the classroom, I began studying childhood.
BB. German cultural memory has been the subject of a great deal of public and academic debate. What were the greatest challenges in approaching this material, and how does the focus of your study differ from other critical approaches?
AL. My book focuses in particular on the idea of authenticity, and especially the concept of emotionally experienced history (in German: gefühlte Geschichte). This concept has grown out of a particularly German experience, but is also much more widely applicable. Part of what it deals with is how to tell a story that is personal to an individual but respectful of a society’s experiences, and also its hang-ups and baggage. Within this, the notion of what is ‘authentic’ comes to the fore. Why do people feel that fiction is authentic? And what does that mean? I was fascinated by the idea that books or films could be interpreted as offering ‘authentic’ versions of the past purely because they were about a child’s experience.
BB. You mention in your book the fact that people in general are aware of the problems of Germany’s Nazi past, and yet at the same time ignorant of them. How does your study help to address our understanding of the past in a broader European context?
AL. Germany has been interrogating its own history in many ways for decades and much more so than other nations in Europe, certainly much more than the UK. And yet it isn’t at all a straightforward process. One of the reasons I’m so interested in cultural memory is that it forces us to ask questions about who decides what is remembered within institutions and public spaces. And when books or films challenge the stories about the past that dominate our view of a historical period, how do they do that?
BB. I can imagine that your work will resonate with many people who are still coming to terms with complex and difficult childhood experiences, not just in Nazi Germany but perhaps also under other political regimes across the world.
AL. Childhood is something that everyone has experienced. That means readers and audiences always have ideas about it and contributions to make. We often see in the media images of children suffering, the tragic case of Alan Kurdi (originally reported as Aylan Kurdi), for example. These images can easily become iconic but often do little to change the lives of children. I wanted in my book to explore the experiences of children as having agency and not just as innocents who suffer passively and silently. If you spend time with children, this is abundantly clear, but often this reality is lost when children become the subject of literature or film.
BB. What is next on your agenda? Are you moving on to a fresh research project, or working further on issues emerging from this volume?
AL. Since finishing Childhood, Memory, and the Nation, I’ve been researching the White Rose resistance circle, a group of students and a professor in Munich who produced anti-Nazi pamphlets in the early 1940s. My new book, Defying Hitler: The White Rose Pamphlets, is coming out with Bodleian Library Publishing in February 2022. I have also been working on a book about the depiction of the Third Reich and World War II in German-language comics and graphic literature.
BB. Finally, what do you do to relax?
AL. If I’m reading purely for pleasure, I tend to reach for J. G. Ballard, Graham Greene, Barbara Pym, or Jan Morris. I also enjoy reading about mountaineering and have just finished Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of my Life. I spend a lot of my leisure time singing Gregorian chant and church music.