Spring 1982: I was living in Hamburg on my dwindling savings, as the house guest of a German couple – and their cat – in a large gloomy apartment just north of the city centre. My whole life at the time was in German: TV, radio, newpapers, magazines, books, records and every human interaction – from breakfast conversation with my hosts – to chatting up strangers in the local sauna by night.
Being immersed in a language and culture I only half understood acted as a kind of filter that gave hard reality something of a fuzzy edge. Somehow the news that “Die beiden Flugzeugträger HMS Hermes und HMS Invincible der Britischer Flottenverband haben sich nach die Falklandinseln auf den Weg gemacht” was scarier yet somehow removed because I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. But nobody was in any doubt that war was in the air.
Germany was still an occupied country with the Iron Curtain driven right through its heart. The news that Premierministerin Thatcher had seen fit to despatch “drei große atomgetriebene U-Boote” to the South Atlantic struck my German friends with horror. The Soviet army stationed only 60 miles away was paranoid and twitchy enough, without any posturing from the British and their nuclear submarines.
Thirty years ago today as the task force was setting out, I was sipping a coffee on the terrace of the Europaischer Hof – opposite Hamburg’s central station – and fell into conversation with an elderly lady at the next table.
“And where are you from, young man?” she asked in querulous German – and when I replied “Aus England” she shook her head. “Please God let there not be another war” she croaked. “I’ve already lived through two wars. War is terrible… terrible. Please God let there not be another war…”
That’s the thing about the past – it’s fixed: looking back on history events seems somehow inevitable. But just because we got lucky and a particular outcome didn’t in fact happen doesn’t mean the danger was any less great at the time.