Pictures worth a thousand words: thoughts on ‘Brexit’.

The UK is about to make a huge decision about its future on 23rd June.

As a small business with a number of European clients (including those of our translation business Decipherit) and having filmed and photographed any number of projects across Europe over the years, we have benefited as much as anyone from the free movement and trade that Europe has offered us.

As such we are strongly pro-remain, but as Wild Dog’s Producer/Director Andrew Johnstone explains, the decision to stay is about more than just business.

Hanging on the walls somewhere in the Imperial War Museum in London are two pictures by my grandmother, Doris Zinkeisen. Both were painted in April 1945, after the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp by the Allies at the end of the Second World War.Human Laundry

One picture, The Human Laundry, shows nurses washing and caring for skeletal patients after Belsen had been liberated. The other, Belsen 1945, is more gruesome and shows a pile of dead bodies in tattered, stripped prison wear, as an acrid smoke billows across the dark sky.

Born in Rosneath, Scotland, Doris was the daughter of a second generation German immigrant Victor Zinkeisen. Victor’s father, Theodore, had come to Scotland in the 1860s from Berlin, to seek a better life in Glasgow, setting up shop as a yarn merchant in the Victorian boom-town, famous for its shipbuilding and heavy industry. When Doris was born in 1897, the family was reasonably prosperous, but by 1909 her father’s business had gone bankrupt and the family moved to London to start again.

Doris and her sister Anna were talented artists and both won scholarships to the Royal Academy Schools. Doris developed a successful career as a theatre designer and society portrait painter in London in the 1920s & 30s where she peddled the myth that she was ‘from Bohemia’ rather than admit that her familyBelsen 1945 were from Germany.

When the Second World War broke out, Doris joined the St John’s Ambulance Brigade as a nurse, but her skills as an artist were soon put to use, drawing detailed records of the injuries suffered by Londoners in the Blitz and by soldiers from the front line which were used to train doctors and military field surgeons treating the wounded. Then came Belsen.

Doris never spoke about Belsen. Indeed, I barely considered my grandmother’s contribution to the public record of those terrible events until several years after her death, after I too had witnessed the horrors of racially motivated political violence on European soil. As a television cameraman for the United Nations, I filmed countless interviews with displaced people, refugees and victims of violence. I watched as the women and children arrived in the hastily erected refugee camp at Tuzla airbase, expelled from Srebrenica while their men were butchered.

Then in August 1995, while filming near Knin in Croatia, following up on the story of Operation Storm, the Croatian Army’s push to retake the areas of Croatia that had been occupied by Croatian Serbs, we stumbled across a killing. In the village of Grubor, old men had been dragged from their beds and executed. The village had been set alight. Distraught, the old women that remained howled over the bodies of their dead husbands. The film we made that day still sits with me, much as the pictures my grandmother painted 50 years earlier had haunted her.

UNTV Burning Village 1995 from Andy Johnstone – Wild Dog Ltd on Vimeo.

For all its failings, the European project that brought a continent together in the fires of the post-war peace has offered a forum for the political debate and horse-trading that was so obviously absent in the first half of the twentieth century. While it was clearly possible for my great-great grandfather to get on his German bike and find work in a Britain that was not part of any European Union in the 1860s, the lack of a political, social and trade forum that might have sought to unite countries rather than divide them, was clearly exposed when Europe disintegrated into war in 1914 and again in 1939.

While in 1991, the European Union was powerless to stop the Balkan states, then themselves outside the EU, from descending into war, it should be noted that there has been no military conflict between any of the participating EU states since 1945 – remarkable for nations that had been fighting with each other for centuries. The opening up of travel and work opportunities to people from across the EU, the soft power of the Italian restaurant, the French film, the Spanish holiday home and the German car have all probably done more to keep the peace across Europe than we can possibly imagine.

The positive intent to try to unite countries in the EU has been a force for peace. The idea of putting up the barriers again and refusing to participate in a forum that has also delivered forms of social justice that successive British governments have failed to introduce, such as statutory holiday pay, maternity leave and human rights, is regressive.

The deaths of millions at the hands of the Nazis all started with people looking to shift the blame for the economic downturn of the 1930s and Germany’s malaise on one ethnic group, the Jews. Now 80 years on we have something similar, with the UK’s troubles being laid at the door of migrants. The 19th and early 20th Century solution to trade disputes, political and geo-political squabbles was violence and mass murder, solutions that my Grandmother’s pictures of the emaciated victims of the Nazis in Belsen remind us of every day. I fail to see how abandoning the European Project makes this any less likely to happen again.

Andrew Johnstone
Devon
June 2016

(Images Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London)