Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Road Not Travelled

I think everyone will have had a similar tale of someone who they admired or had a crush on in their youth, but never quite had the courage to break the ice with from sheer awkwardness.  As age creeps in, it’s easy to play the “what if” game about “the one you let get away”, wondering who they were and what would life be like.  This is the disturbing tale of one such crush of mine, and the revelation of the last week.

Let me take you back in time to 1995.  I was studying for a Masters degree in “the physics of laser communications”, it was a course ran partly at the University of Essex, and ran in partnership with a number of foreign Universities as an exchange program.  I was feeling somewhat bored with life in the UK, and the idea of study abroad seemed an exciting adventure not to be missed.

I also had substantial chip on my shoulder from school –I’d bombed out of my German language exam with a “U” grade for “Ungradable” (really, really bad).  So when the opportunity came up for study in Jena, Germany at the Friedrich-Schiller-University, this was my chance to revisit this failure – after all some German would be better than none, and how could I fail to be fluent if I immersed myself in the language?  “Besides”, people kept telling me, “everyone in Germany speaks great English, you’ll get on fine”.

The other thing people kept telling me was a recurring prophecy that “you’ll probably meet some German girl, and never want to come home”.  Part of this was due to me going through a particularly bad break-up recently, which to be honest was part of the allure of getting as far away from the UK as possible.

Arriving in Jena it turned out that the “everyone speaks English” myth about Germany was spot on … for West Germany.  Unfortunately I was going to the part which until 1990 was part of “The Old East” under the thumb of a brutal Communist regime that had the gall to describe itself as the “German Democratic Republic”.

Jena in 1995 was only a few of years into reunification.  It was part of a country struggling to find a new identity, whilst reconciling it’s past.  Even in our time we were told at the Institute of Applied Optics how a few members of staff were being “asked to leave” after accusations that they had been “too friendly” with the old Communist regime, especially the dreaded Stasi, the East German Secret Police.

The people had lived under a regime which had taught them to distrust each other, but especially to distrust foreigners.  Whilst many we met relished the freedom the fall of the Communism had brought, and rejected these old values, amongst a few, that attitude had prevailed.  I remember being shocked at an altercation on a late night bus where someone had taken great offence that a black guy had boarded a bus holding hands with a white girl.  I remember me and fellow student Donnacha being one of the many on that bus forming a wall between the racist thug who wanted to get violent with this interracial couple.  And I remember the man who stood up to this thug and told him to his face how out of line his behaviour was.

It was a rude awakening.  And this was the country people told me I’d be falling in love with?

As students we lived in Lobeda – a small district 5 km outside of Jena where we studied.  Getting to and from town, we all travelled the commuter bus.  Buses being probably one of the few things East Germany got right.

Although Lobeda had a few historic and “quaint” buildings, most of it consisted of massive, ugly, run down accommodation blocks.  The Communist government had designated it a suburb, and hastily thrown up a wall of concrete apartments – each with a now boarded up office in the foyer, where (it was explained to me) a representative of the Stasi would clock people in and out of the building, as well as regularly turn over people’s apartments looking for anything suspicious.  The Communists may have left, but the still suburb had all the charm of a high security prison.

Every day was a shuffle back and forth between Lobeda and Jena on the bus network – as a young student you got to notice familiar faces.  Especially female ones.  I never knew her as anything else than “the Lobeda bus girl”, but I’d see her most days.  I thought as she got off at the same stop, she was another student.  She was pretty, but I never got the nerve up to ever speak to her properly – with my poor German, it’d be a struggle to communicate, and she seemed surly a lot of the time.  But then at the time I was a recovering Smiths fan, and I didn't really do “happy” much myself.  My lab partner Donnacha was totally different - with his Irish charm and non-existent German, he was still able through sheer Irish bravado get results in breaking the language barrier by just speaking very loud in English and laughing a lot – whilst I never really had the knack of breaking the awkwardness of introducing myself to someone who didn't understand me.

I met “the Lobeda bus girl” a couple of times around Jena.  I’d learned to stay close to Donnacha, as it seems an Irishman in East Germany was a novelty, and a lot of German girls would come over just to hear him speak.  Staying friends with Donnacha, you’d always be invited to the best parties.  Beate was friends with one of the girls who was entranced with the Irish rogue, and Beate would always tag along.  We would exchange half-smiles – Beate was the quiet friend to her excitable German friend as I was the quiet friend to Donnacha.  Half smiles and looks was all I think was all the language we managed to communicate in.

She was hard to forget – it was a long, hot summer in Germany.  The boys wore shorts and T-shirts all the time, and the women too wore minimal attire – and I was young, hormonal and disastrously single.  Yes, she burned herself into my memory.  So that’s my tale – the tale of “the Lobeda bus girl”, one of many “what if” scenarios which play through my head.  One of the many “what ifs” we all have running and meshing through our lives.

That was until this week, when I read the story of Beate Zschaepe in the news.

The news described her as "the lone survivor" of a criminal neo-Nazi gang called the NSU (National Socialist Movement).  The other two male members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, had committed suicide after a botched bank raid, and Beate handed herself into the Police in Jena after destroying her apartment in Zwichen..  As a gang, the NSU are suspected of being involved in the murder of at least 10 people (mainly Turkish immigrants) in Germany, as well as responsible for a series of bombings in migrant areas and a string of violent bank robberies.

This was horrific stuff, but the face of Beate Zschaepe was just too familiar, and looking up details of Beate’s life, there is was clearly – the old photos, the details of her past living in a studio flat in Lobeda in the 1990s.  The chance of it being someone who just looked like “the Lobeda bus girl” dwindled to almost nil.

It was unsettling – a rose coloured piece of my past, tainted. That attractive girl, who seemed one of the few highlights of the drab and oppressing urban landscape of Lobeda had been exposed as something disturbing and horrifying.

It was chilling.  We’re too used to watching films and seeing the villain signposted.  Some actors are typecast now as playing villains – Sean Bean just has to walk into a scene and I’m sure he’s the one behind it all (bit of a shock when Game Of Thrones played out the way it did, I can assure you).  Yet every day there’s another tale of a serial killer unmasked, a teen who goes on a shooting spree or person found to be behind a terrorist attack.  And almost all the time the story is the same “they seemed like a nice person … just normal”.  Seeing her on the bus, Beate was an “object of affection” who looked like she might be a student protester who wanted to hug trees and save whales.  But she wasn’t, she was engaged - even at the time – in something truly evil, and was on the run soon afterwards being implicated in bomb making and bomb threats.  But when I saw her on the bus or with her friend, there was no warning placard above her, she didn’t sneer or laugh like a witch – to be honest she seemed more normal than me.

So on the one hand there’s the memory of that pretty (if surly and quiet) twenty year old girl, who seemed to traipse around Jena during a hot summer braless (I noticed) in baggy T-shirts and the shortest of shorts.  It’s hard not to have very strong and sensual youthful memories of her.  But on the other hand there’s the tale of the 38 year old handing herself into the Police for her involvement with a terrorist movement motivated by hatred to perform a series of sick crimes.  It’s difficult to reconcile that these two Beates are one and the same.

A friend of mine noted “she’s still a bit of a looker” after seeing her court appearance, though failing to grasp the fact that though she was the girl I once thought cute and desirable, there’s nothing attractive about hatred.  And through her involvement with the NSU she has committed her life to that hatred.  I’ve spent years judging that particular book by it’s cover – and where I saw a hopefully erotic romance, someone else opened the pages to find only Mein Kampf inside.

Maybe the game of “what if” in our past makes us forget to be thankful for the gifts we truly have in the here and now.

The pictures of a a girl who I guess I'll always have trouble "seeing that way" (the evil way she really was) from how I knew her ...


There is an eerie after word, which perhaps serves as this saga’s only uplifting piece.  In looking through the old photographs of the NSU, I came across this picture below, a series of pictures circa 1996

The man in the middle is named Uwe Boehnhardt, one of the double suicides of the NSU after that failed bank raid.  And he, like Beate, has a face that is disturbingly familiar.  After almost 18 years, it’s impossible to be certain, but he looks distinctly like the “bus racist” who I spoke about earlier.

It was the last bus from Jena to Lobeda on a Friday night – a bunch of us had been drinking in town, and Uwe was at the back, when an interracial couple came on the bus, hand in hand.  Uwe was immediately agitated, shouting abuse in a language that both myself and Donnacha had trouble understanding.  But when he got up aggressively and started walking down the bus at the couple, his violent meaning was plain.

I wasn’t the first person to act, and I don’t know who did.  But someone got out of their seat to block the bus walkway from Uwe so he could not pass.  Once one person did it, it’s as if we all did it in unison – including me and Donnacha – it was a true “I’m Sparticus” move of solidarity and defiance.

At this point, his violent intentions were frustrated, and there was no way for him to go through us, when a middle aged man got out of his seat, slapping Uwe around the head.  The man looked like a Germanic version of Ray Winstone – a tough, hard man who’d be able to have most people in a fight.  Yet when he spoke he spoke, he did so emotionally, almost in tears talking about “schade” or “shame”.

Uwe reluctantly got back to his seat.  When the interracial couple got off the bus, Uwe tried to as well, with the intention of following them – however the other passengers wouldn't let him get off for another two stops.

Germany gets a raw deal - because of World War Two, they are often portrayed in popular culture as Nazis or people “only obeying orders”.  But Germany is so much more than that.  Germans, especially East Germans have experience the harshness of first Fascism and then Communism, regimes that promised much, but turned out to be more brutal than the problems they vowed to solve.

Over the next few months there will be a lot of talk about the NSU, of Beate Zschape or Uwe Boehnhardt and of their victims.  But no-one will hear the tale of the last bus from Jena.  The people on that bus could have ignored what was going on – they could have looked the other way in case Uwe turned on them.  But they didn’t.  Because one person found the courage to make a stand, countless others, including myself also found that same courage, and found that we were not alone.  And one remarkable man, who I’ll never know his name, stood up to a bully and a murderer and said “this is not right, this is wrong, and what you do brings shame to us all”.

Prejudice is ugly, and it comes in all shapes and sizes – against colour, against gender, against sexuality.  If there is a lesson from the last bus from Jena against all the murder and hatred of the NSU, it’s this, make a stand.  Make a stand, you won’t be alone.


  1. I realise this post has nothing to do with testing or even the office - but I think you'll agree it's a powerful tale I just felt the need to tell.

    Maybe a post on boundary testing next time?

  2. Wow, this is indeed a powerful story. Thanks for sharing!

  3. That did not go where I thought it was going but it was very good.

  4. I clicked a link from Tim Hall's site. Wow, what a story!

  5. Wow, Mike, you have had some amazing experiences in your life. I hope I would be so courageous in a similar situation. And wow, to see someone from your past in the news, yikes.

    And you had the courage to go to a part of the world undergoing huge changes, without having mastered the language beforehand, you rock!

  6. love hearing about your life, love your writing style, Lucy :-)

  7. Very good post Mike. And very scary in a way.

    Just one correction there, the word the old man used was surely "Schande", which is German for shame.

  8. Strange and moving to read your post. Thanks for sharing!

  9. It is a powerful story - and incredible that you knew this person. I can never understand hatred or what drives people to such a life. I can only imagine your shock and disbelief when you read the story. Very sad indeed.

  10. I really enjoyed reading the Post. It was very informative and useful for me.