The Night of the Sphinx

 

Awaiting the Dawn Service, the Sphinx towers above the crowd
 

I am currently lying on the slopes of ANZAC cove, the cool grass beneath me and nothing but inky skies and a few drops of light above. Behind me are thousands of my countrymen and New Zealanders. The great TV screen to my left plays documentaries every half hour or so and there is a general buzz as people continue to filter into the site. I have exchanged words with the New Zealand Prime Minister, aussie journo David ‘kochy’ Koch and one of my tour mates is currently chatting footy with Eddie Macguire, who Andrew and I have just finished saying G’day to as well. It is the tightly controlled media varnish of the ANZAC mythology. 

The peninsula seems awash with a who’s who of Australian and New Zealand who’s who… Well… I’ll let you be the judge of that. Overall there is a carnival atmosphere that has descended upon the crowd, spirits are high, larrikanism seems to be the order of the day. 
It has been an interesting journey here and a whirlwind of Turkey. Moving from Ottoman palaces to Ancient Greek and Roman cities. You can’t help but feel how Turkey has played host to every major power the world creating thousands of myths and legends that have endured time and empires. And now Turkey is playing host to thousands of Australians and New Zealanders remembering their own myths and legends that Turkey is now a very gracious and proud custodian of, as they are their myths and legends too. These myths are like the cats and dogs you will meet all over Turkey; looked after by everyone and yet owned by no one. 
 
The Trojan Horse used in the film “Troy” with Gallipoli in the background
 
It’s now 3am and the whole of ANZAC cove is alive with 10,000 people, we’ve moved from laying down to sitting and now to standing as we fill to capacity. But I think we are all feeling grateful that it is a rather mild night in ANZAC, a very soft breeze is blowing and it is roughly 4 degrees. Everyone seems to be in good spirits as we stand awaiting the dawn. The spirit of ANZAC seems to be in the air this morning, keeping the crowd calm and cooperative and the word’s “a fair go” never too far from someone’s lips. 
Perhaps it is mere sentimentality, but if it is then it is an atmosphere of sentimentality shared by thousands. And perhaps that’s what we as Australians could use right now. Gallipoli is a mythology, an Iliad of heroism on both sides that reads like a Homeric tale. A foolish venture ordered by an aristocracy and amidst blood and tragedy three national identities were formed. Names like Simpson, Sing, Birdwood and Throssel and their actions are the stuff of legend. It is easy to criticise the occasion as a glorification of war, but the place of mythology that Gallipoli occupies in our national consciousness makes it so much more complicated than that. 
This ANZAC day we should remember those values we possessed as a nation that turned us from invaders to brothers, that taught us that war is nasty and horrific and wholly lacking in any kind of Glory. For what is ANZAC day but not a reminder that blind patriotism and nationalism is a dangerous business? That there is more to who we are than blindly following the words of others into conflict, whether they be King or Prime Minister. Most importantly of all it should be a reminder that the other people we fight are human just like us. 
Perhaps if we could invest a little more in thoughts of sentimentality surrounding our national mythology our nation would be the better, more sympathetic and more tolerant for it. After all it is a day for reflection and introspection, a time to think about who we are as a nation and how we will always be defined by our actions. 
     
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München through Munich 

The snow swirled unexpectedly in cold cotton drifts.  The German gods were having some Wagnerian pillow fight in the skies above Munich as Andrew and I took our first steps beyond the hostel wall. In other words perfect beer hall weather! 

Before that it was necessary to take the pilgrimage to Europe’s most over rated tourist attraction, the glockenspiel. 

   

Marienplatz was crowded with tourists all waiting expectedly as this marvel was to unfold above us. The glockenspiel itself placed into the neo-gothic architecture of the nues rathouse (an appropriate name for a building filled with politicians) looked down upon us, it’s mediaeval romantic figures carved from wood standing ready to begin the spectacle. Then at 5pm (well, about 5:07, no auto mechanism here, it’s all reliant on someone climbing to the top and flicking the on switch) the spectacle began. The wooden figures roared into a sudden flurry of slow motion activity, before two Knights one from Baveria and the other from Austria came charging toward one another at what can only be described as a grind of hooves. The bells beating out a tune, completely out of tune, were the perfect accompaniment  to this craptacular display of clockwork. The Bavarian knight triumphant in his victory over the Austrian, it seemed like all was done. But then out of a very predictable nowhere the cooper figures below the joust began their dance to celebrate the end of the plague that had once ravished Munich. When the tiny owl above the glockenspiel finally flapped his wings, as if to say “show’s over, move along”, an inexplicable cheering and clapping erupted from the crowd. My only thought on why this happened is, having suffered through the glockenspiel together the people of the Marienplatz would now not have to endure the performance again until 10am the following morning. That’s if the operator could be arsed climbing to the top of the Rathaus to torture the unfortunates below once more. 

If there is one thing to be said about Australians and Germans it’s that we share a common love of beer. Munich is the beer capital of the world and Andrew and I both understood that some heavy drinking was about to ensue. We started with the Mecca of beer halls the Hoffbrauhaus. 

  

It certainly lived up to its reputation for rowdiness and intoxication. The warm, sweet, cosy atmosphere as you wander in combined with the oom pah pah band playing leaves you in no doubt about where you have come to. The beer in its heavy 1L stein is sweet and gentle, like many of the Bavarians we have met along the way. We eventually found our way into the infamous festall, the beer hall in which Hitler announced the birth of the NSDAP and unveiled the swastika. 

  

Munich for all its fun and frivolity makes no attempt to hide the scars of its 12 years of national socialism. It is a sobering thought that Munich with its romantic cathedrals, jovial beer halls and Bavarian kitsch was the birthplace of something so terrifying as the NAZI party. 

In Munich we also found the quiet signs of German resistance. Munich is where a small group of university students known as The White Rose Society were beheaded for distributing Anti-NAZI pamphlets. 

Also a little lane with a thin line of brass cobblestones remains as a monument to those, who seeking to avoid having to salute a Nazi shrine to the 1923 beer hall putsch, were beaten or killed for this small act of resistance. The Putsch shrine was guarded by two SS men 24hrs a day to ensure that passers by saluted as they were supposed to, an alley behind the shrine meant that people could quietly slip by without saluting, a small but important act of defiance. I was told that being aware of the alley way the Gestaupo placed a man there to catch those who used the alley more than once a day. If you got off lightly you were beaten to a pulp or sent to Dachau, if the officer was just in a bad mood you were executed on the spot. Despite all this the people of Munich continued to use the alley. A very quiet, but in my opinion, very proud and German act of defiance, lending a touch of irony to the name of the lane, which translates as “shirkers alley”. 

  

The Brass trail is a monument to the German resistance of the Nazis

 

Andrew and I did visit Dachau whilst in Munich. I won’t go into great detail aside from to say, it is a place everyone should visit. Having passed through the horror of the camp itself, when you stand inside the little low ceilinged concrete box with its fake shower heads and feel the chill that seeps into your bones, you will know that if hell had a centre you are truly standing in it. 

Below are some photos I took in the camp. I offer no commentary on them, other than asking you to take a moment to look and reflect. 

  

         

 I felt changed in some unalterable way by my experience here. There was an almost “there but for the grace of God, go I” sense. Given my political viewpoints, my love of the arts and some (1/8th) Jewish ancestry it is likely that, if I were a German or invaded by Germans, somewhere between 1933 & 45, I would have found myself in such a place. I walked away feeling saddened, but so much more steadfast in my belief that all human beings must be afforded their dignity and rights. 

As has been said before Germans make no effort to disguise their past, but having acknowledged it and continuing to do so, quietly and respectfully they are able to enjoy those things that make Germany great. 

The people of Munich are extremely friendly. On our last night in Munich, we found ourselves drinking at the Augustiner Keller. If the Hoffbrauhaus is the Mecca of beer halls then a pint from the Augustiner Keller is the holy grail of beers! So popular that allegedly it doesn’t have a marketing department, Augustiner is seldom exported beyond German borders. Sitting beneath the  budding chestnut trees, we got talking with four of the local university students. We struck up an instant friendship as we discussed Australia and Germany and our many similarities. At which point the lights in the beer garden went to black and we found ourselves locked in! 

A quick limbo under the wooden gates though and we were out! It was then decided that no trip to Munich would be complete without a visit to the old town to ride the boar outside the gaming and fisheries ministry and to pay a visit to the statue of Juliet… As in Romeo and Juliet… There is nothing stranger in Munich than the statue of a shakesperian character gifted from Verona to a German city.  

Legend has it if you touch her breast you will meet a lover that night, but if you bring her a flower your love that you meet will stay with you forever!

 

 Though perhaps here a point. Food, language, geography may change, but people remain the same. All capable of horrors, friendship, love and getting locked inside the Augustiner Keller. It is possible for us all to find the common ground and see our past not as something particular to Australia, Germany or Turkey, but a shared past, a communal pool from which we must drink and together seek a brighter future. 

Australia to Berlin. 

It’s an odd feeling you get burning away in your belly; when you leave the world you know behind and when you return you won’t quite be the same person who left. 

In just under a month Andrew and I will stand in the place where thousands of our countrymen lost their lives and the notion of Australian nationhood was born. But what is Australian nationhood and what is the ANZAC spirit?

It is a beautiful mythology, our very own Iliad. Young men and women called to serve an empire only to find who they truly were in the heat of battle. They held on against insurmountable odds against an enemy defending its homeland. And in the face of enmity they created a special bond with the men in the trenches opposite. They saw themselves through the hardships with laughter and mate ship. Then when it came to retreating our very own Odysseus, Lt. Col. Charles Brundell White hatched a plan truly worthy of Trojan horse fame and not one man was lost. 

It’s the stuff of glorious paintings, plays, movies and legend. It’s quite a daunting thought to think that we will forever be a part of that mythology, in the smallest of ways as we remember those who fell in a foreign land. 

But before all that… Berlin, Munich, Berchtesgaden, Salzburg. There will be drinking and carousing and many many museums. 

Yesterday, we left Berlin behind us. It was a sad leaving as it seems to be a city that can crawl under your skin and beg you to stay. I read a quote from the Dali Llama that said 

We can let the circumstances of our life harden us, so we become increasingly resentful and afraid. Or we can choose to let them soften us, so we become kinder …

It seems Berlin chose the latter of these two options. The people of the city are exceedingly polite and tolerant. Perhaps it’s because they purge themselves through art? Everywhere you look in Berlin, people’s voices are being heard, even if it is in the uninteresting scrawl of graffiti adorning a train carriage that you pass by, it’s still there and for some reason so permissible. 

This is the way the city chooses to engage with the horrors of its own past, it turns them into art. 

   

  

The East side gallery, a poignant expression of division and reconciliation. 

You can’t help but be overawed by the way Berlin uses art to express and heal its wounds. They have the truth of art itself, as a medicine and a hammer with which one can affect change. This is of course one of the central lessons of my great theatrical idol and it seems only appropriate to me now that this is the city in which he would choose to create his theatre and leave behind his legacy. 

 Brecht and I out the front of his Berliner Ensemble 

  

Dem Deutsches Volk, “The German People”, simplicity itself adorns the German parliament. A glorious reminder that in a true democracy the people are governed by the people and for the people. It seems to sit there as an almost ironic statement given the division the city has passed through over the last 100 years or perhaps it is a very timely reminder of those words from Primo Levi:

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” 

At the end of the day Berlin and Germany makes me think a lot about Australia. At the moment there is a very strong, very nationalistic ideal amongst many Australians. To be fair it has always been there, but perhaps a little obscured or glanced over. In the 30’s there were race riots in Kalgoorlie, the Italian population was sent packing into the desert, we had instances on the gold fields of white prospectors scalping Chinese immigrants and we as a nation still struggle to find reconciliation with the treatment of indigenous peoples. And now we also have a media blackout on the fate of people who come to Australia seeking asylum, what is worse is we are taking those people and subjecting them to the terror of detention centres; men, women and children. 

It all catalysed for me as Andrew and I visited the very solemn grey concrete rectangles of the holocaust memorial. Soaring above you and always at a slightly different angle, they reminded me of the irrationality of persecution, but being laid out in a grid it spoke of the regularity with which it happens. Again here is an artwork that invites you to engage with it, to play an active part in remembrance. 

   

I found myself questioning when we may have to erect such memorials of our own. To remind ourselves that our past as a nation is bloody and fraught with injustices, but that knowing our past we as a nation can come together and seek a brighter future.  

So, where does this all fit in along the Road to Gallipoli? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that yet. It’d be nice to tie it off with a little bow, but there’s still a long way to go.