The Shadow of War
by Ingrid Dixon on 28 February 2017
If the reader is thinking that my name might reflect a dual heritage, she would be right! I was raised bilingually in Britain by a British father and a German mother – this ambiguous parentage, representing nations and cultures historically bound with each other, and yet on opposing sides in the major conflicts of the twentieth century, has defined most aspects of my life.
Having read German and Italian at Bristol University, I was unable to pursue a career after graduation, as marriage to a member of the Armed Forces coupled with two children in my early twenties entailed frequent moves around continents, a life characterised by volunteer and part-time jobs fitted around the demands of Service existence. In 1992, back in Britain, I applied to Cambridge to start a PGCE in the education department of the University, teaching German, and was accepted by Lucy Cavendish. Full of trepidation, I took up residence in an attic room at Strathaird, wondering if it was a terrible mistake. I should not have worried. Lucy changed my life, gave me confidence and skills I had been unable to develop previously, and enabled participation in a community and an ethos unequalled in the English-speaking world. Studying as a mature student, far from being disadvantageous, brings advantages which far outweigh the difficulties.
Lucy taught me to identify goals and pursue them realistically. Returning to Cambridge in 2003 after a decade of teaching German and English, coupled with freelance writing of newspaper articles, I started a second spell of study as a mature student, culminating in a Masters’ degree at the Courtauld Institute in London in early Sienese and Florentine art. The research skills acquired would equip me for what was to follow. I published material on Victorian architect George Edmund Street and his early Italian art collection and simultaneously began writing and teaching specialist German courses at the University in Cambridge, for the History Faculty and for PhD students who had to access German texts in their fields of study.
But my Anglo-German origins and dual personality have always raised many issues which remained unresolved. Over 20 years ago, I began researching the story of my mother’s childhood and adolescence in the Third Reich, her life in Germany during the Second World War, and her arrival in Britain in 1946 as a so-called “war bride”. My parents met under exceptional circumstances but their story is not unique. It is estimated that about 10,000 British men married German girls they encountered in the chaotic aftermath of the war, but exact figures have never been established. My father was a soldier in the Intelligence Corps, whose unit was sent to the ancient city of Aachen in the newly established British Zone of Occupation after the final capitulation of May 1945. My maternal family had fled in late 1944 from their home outside Aachen ahead of advancing American troops, who captured it after a bloody and protracted battle, the first city on German soil to fall. As my mother and grandmother returned to their devastated home in 1945, on a country estate where my grandfather had been chauffeur, they were faced with a stark choice. My father’s unit, who had requisitioned the large estate house as living quarters, offered food rations in return for domestic housekeeping work. My mother cooked, cleaned and washed for soldiers who had previously been enemies. Attractions formed in spite of strict and unrealistic non-fraternisation regulations.
Researching this story has now culminated in the publication of “The Bride’s Trunk – a Story of War and Reconciliation”. The book places the family saga within its historical, social, military and political context, through the medium of personal and official documentation, photographic evidence, personal testimony and material objects – the “Trunk” of the title. Many of the letters my parents exchanged after my father returned to Britain, and my mother waited for permission to travel to Britain, have survived. For many couples the breakthrough came in August 1946, when a statement was made in Parliament that the ban on marriages between British Servicemen and German women was being relaxed. My mother was welcomed into her new home in Liverpool, where my father’s family lived, in December 1946. She was accompanied on her journey to Britain by the trunk, which had survived Allied bombs and whose travels, and the lives of its owners, had been dictated by the turbulent events of twentieth century history. She married into a remarkable family, in which enmity, bitterness and prejudice were gradually forged into genuine and lasting relationships on both sides.
The book aims to be of general interest to an informed reader, but is also underpinned by much original meticulous research. Professional historians and our President, Jackie Ashley, have been generous in their endorsements. Reviews have so far been overwhelmingly positive in both Britain and Germany. The book has met with a particular resonance in Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle) in Germany, as it documents aspects of a hitherto neglected period of local and regional history. The image above shows me in Aachen during a period of research.
Publication of the book has been both cathartic and liberating. In the book’s final chapter I examine the personal legacy of my heritage. My mother at 96 has endorsed its publication, but revisiting past events has brought mixed emotions. The issues addressed in the story, of war and peace, forgiveness, compromise and responsibility, are universal.
What’s next? Further work on a less contentious subject, George Edmund Street and his Victorian legacy, now beckons, as well as ongoing English language teaching and research into post-war Germany. A journey that began in Lady Margaret Road is ongoing and inspiring. Learning is lifelong and education is never in vain.