I’ve just watched the harrowing Danish / German war film, Land of Mine. It’s about a group of German Prisoners of War who, contrary to the Geneva Convention, are made to find and defuse 45,000 land mines along a short stretch of brilliant white coastline. That’s 45,000 out of the 2.2 million mines that were laid along the Danish coast, more than the rest of Europe altogether. This is where the Führer thought the invasion would come.
The film is heart-wrenching. The soldiers are all in their teens, clearly out of their depth, carrying all the burden of a situation that was not of their making. They are harassed and abused by their guards. It’s understandable, but hard to watch when they are crying and having to loudly deny that they are missing their homes, or their family, or even crying in the first place. This is grim. It is only a matter of time before, starving and sick from eating stolen animal meal, the expected happens.
My grandfather was a German Prisoner of War, which was one of the reasons I watched the film. I wanted to try to get some insight into what he must have experienced, being little more than a boy during this period of seismic upheaval. He died when I was 10, but I still remember sitting at his feet and pestering him for war stories whilst he sat in his favourite armchair in his Eastbourne semi, smoking Golden Virginia rollies. He didn’t like talking about the war, but over the years I got several stories from him.
He told me how he was at the launch of one of the first V2 rockets, which went straight up in the sky and came straight back down on the launch site, leaving the soldiers scrambling for cover. He told me how he was captured at the Battle of Caen, aiming a Panzerfaust at a British tank and being spotted by the tank commander who fired his machine gun at him. My grandfather’s stick grenade was hit and exploded, wounding him from head to foot on one side and blowing to pieces his friend who was loading behind him. My grandfather was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada – ‘the bears used to raid the bins every night’ – then to Scotland, and finally to Eastbourne, which is where he met my grandmother.
His experience of growing up is incomparable to mine; that’s why I was interested in seeing Land of Mine. In those young, proud, frightened German boys I was able to imagine some of the barely suppressed, frequently overt hatred he must have experienced from those who saw him as no more than a representative of the evil that had taken away their loved ones in the war.
Being one-quarter German, I am painfully aware that both my great-grandparents and my grandparents effectively tried to kill each other in two of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. My parents and my generation have been spared – thanks in no small part to the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which has helped forge the longest period of peace in Europe since Roman times. But the lesson of history is never to become complacent. We must do all we can to keep our children’s generation free from such ruin.