Do mention the war

Last week I was on an ecumenical pilgrimage (which means each day we walked somewhere) reflecting on war, justice and peace. This was organised by our diocese’s German partners, the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, and included most of their other partners from Finland, Sweden, Tanzania and the USA.

Two things, I think have struck me in particular. The first is the seriousness with which Germans in particular treat their history. Far from this being a case of “don’t mention the war”, the commitment to “never again” grows out of making sure there are monuments to the war built in to city architecture and curriculum alike. For example, they ensure that sites of atrocities are maintained and used in acts of remembrance as well as for school visits. The pictures below show a memorial to a local massacre at Gardelegen from the closing days of WWII, and the adjoining cemetery where the victims are buried. We were there on 13 April, the 61st anniversary of the atrocity.

Memorial 2 Memorial 3

Then there are the Stolpersteine. These “stumbling stones” are built into the pavement at sites where Jews were last know to live (or work, in the case below of the Mayor, Herbert Goldschmidt) before being taken to the death camps. The idea is that these stones catch people in the middle of walking around in daily life, and make them momentarily check themselves and remember. There are now 53,000+ such memorials around Europe.

Stolpersteine 1 Stolpersteine 2

Alongside this history of war, there is more recent history. Magdeburg, where we were based, is in the former DDR. The German peace movement, on both sides of the frontier, really took off in the 1980s, when Pershing missiles were brought to West Germany, and SS20s to East Germany. They protested against a divided country in which a nuclear civil war was a visible possibility on their own soil, brought about by the two superpowers which controlled their respective alliances.

This gave most of those we met from the peace movement a commitment to pacifism, rather than simply to peace. It also gave many of them, I think, a memory of the glory days when they actually made a difference, which may not be helping them look at the world as it now is.

Coming from a church which has officially embraced a just war tradition, I found their experiences and views challenging, even if I continue to disagree with them. It was less their arguments and more what they have lived through, and worked for, which made their views challenging because hard won from life’s experiences. It was peaceful means (as well, of course, severe economic pressure) which brought the wall down, engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union, and delivered reunification.

One of the things I take away from the discussion is this: it’s far too easy for us to mistake a relatively quiet and comfortable life (such as most of us Westerners currently enjoy) for peace. A quiet life at home, without justice for the world’s peoples, is only an illusion of peace. There are too many people, not least the thousands of refugees currently seeking safety, who need the real thing.