The fractious times in which we live remind us that the human psyche can descend to unlovely levels. The values on which Western culture were forged are under threat: Europe is in existential disarray, the US riven as rarely before. Nationalism and racism seem to find new and ugly forms of expression by the day. Mendacity breeds public cynicism. Faith in democracy is shaken.
The clarion call of Armistice Day, this year commemorating the symbolically important 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, alerts us to the unthinkable toll that can be paid when trust and friendship between nations break down. Rarely has there been more of a need to foster the values of tolerance and understanding among diverse peoples.
As head of Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, my school community was appalled when, a couple of days after the Brexit referendum, our neighbours POSK (Polish Social and Cultural Association) were daubed with racist graffiti. In this zeitgeist of xenophobia, has there been a more important time for our young people to develop a proper appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives?
On matters of tolerance and understanding, Latymer Upper has a distinguished tradition. An enlightened and courageous act by my predecessor in 1947 attempted what many would have thought unthinkable just a few years after the Second World War. The then head, Fred Wilkinson, started an "experiment in friendship", as he put it, with Germany – an exchange programme between Latymerians and pupils from the Johanneum school in Hamburg, a town then associated more with enemies than with friends.
Debt of gratitude
Two individuals were formative in the inception and continued success of this experiment. The first, of course, was Wilkinson – affectionately known as Wilkie – who led Latymer from 1937 until 1957. His pro-European sentiments were well understood by his peers, but less well known is the very personal reason he had for reaching out the hand of friendship to Germany after the war, a move that was visionary, humanitarian and – as all the best acts of visionary humanity are – controversial. Wilkinson had served as an infantryman during the Second World War and his life had been spared by a German soldier on the field of battle. He never forgot that debt, and took the opportunity to repay it when the opportunity presented itself, in 1947, to form a link between Latymer and the Johanneum.
The second individual is Walter Grauberg, who joined Latymer Upper on a free place as a refugee from fascist Italy in the 1930s. Grauberg excelled in languages both at school and university, and returned to the school to teach in the late 1940s; he accompanied the first Latymer exchange groups to Hamburg. I met Walter in my first term as head, and he told me a remarkable story: among the first Latymerians to visit the Johanneum was a boy who, while on the exchange, received news that his parents had been killed. The family of his Hamburg exchange partner immediately adopted the orphan and raised him as their own son. Such is the power of friendship.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Hamburg where the 70th anniversary of our exchange programme was celebrated by Latymer and the Johanneum, including alumni from both schools. A lasting memory will be meeting two octogenarians who were on the first exchange in 1948 and who have remained friends ever since. It was a truly moving occasion.
As I looked around the Johanneum’s hall, I spotted the Greek inscription above the proscenium, which reads: “δώσω ὑμῖν στόμα καὶ σοφίαν” (“I shall grant unto you a voice and wisdom”). Sadly, our world appears dominated by voices whose volume is inversely proportional to their wisdom. Distrust of immigrants and a lack of compassion for refugees pervade the political discourse of so many countries in Europe, the US and, I’m sorry to say, the UK.
However, as Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Latymer and the Johanneum have been united by this experiment in friendship for seven decades. As we approach Remembrance Sunday and the 100th anniversary, surely the most profound way in which we can honour the fallen is to educate young people in the values of friendship and international understanding, to help ensure horrors on such a scale do not befall mankind again.
David Goodhew is head of Latymer Upper School in West London