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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Germany: thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

The week Coventry will mark its most significant anniversary of modern times. On the night of 14 November 1940 the German Luftwaffe sent 515 bombers over the medieval city and destroyed it. The operation was code-named 'Moonlight Sonata'. 568 people are known to have perished. The Cathedral was reduced to a ruin. 

50 years later, I was on the staff of the 'new' Cathedral. It fell to me to devise an act of worship to commemorate the city's destruction. It was a big challenge because the service was bound to be heavily freighted with symbolism. Many of those who would be attending were survivors of that terrible night. They had lost members of their families and seen their homes destroyed in the firestorm. Listening to their stories would be the key to understanding what we needed to do in the light of how they remembered half a century after the event and what meanings they attached to it. 

For me, an unforgettable focus of the service lay in its two principal guests: the President of the newly united Germany Richard von Weizs├Ącker, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Because of the central place Coventry Cathedral has always given to forgiveness and reconciliation, we wanted to explore how these senior representatives of Germany and the UK might publicly recognise each other's presence during the service. After months of negotiation, it was agreed that there would be a simple exchange of symbolic gifts representing our two nations, a handshake, and a form of words for each of them that included the prayer 'May God bless the people of your country'. You can imagine the power of that moment: so small in scale, so huge in significance. 

Earlier that day in the ruins, another remarkable event had taken place. It was unplanned: only a few people were there to witness it. A Luftwaffe pilot who had flown a bomber over Coventry in 1940 had decided to come to the commemoration. By then of course, he was an elderly man. He arrived alone, walked up the nave and stood silently in front of the rubble altar gazing at the gaunt charred cross that had been made out of two scorched roof timbers that had fallen across each other during the fire. He took in the words carved in the wall behind the altar: 'Father, forgive'. And quietly he began to weep. One of the Cathedral clergy happened to be there, took him by the hand and embraced him. He said it was a transfiguring moment of his life, as if the whole world's history of alienation, bitterness, bloodshed and cruelty had fallen away. In that moment, reconciliation became real. 

I had these memories in mind as I watched the beautiful, poignant ceremony at the Cenotaph on TV this morning. I am always moved by it, but today I was especially touched by the Commonwealth High Commissioners laying wreaths, and then, for the first time, the Irish Ambassador - a marvellous, conciliatory gesture. But then I asked myself: where were the ambassadors of our allied nations in the wars of the past century? There was a powerful interview with a Dutch veteran who spoke of the huge debt Holland owed the British for its liberation, despite the calamity of Arnhem. I may have missed it, but we did not hear anything from the French, the Russians or the Americans. Are their ambassadors invited to the Cenotaph? Are they invited to lay wreaths?

And inevitably, the logic pushed me to ask: what about Germany? Is that nation represented in any official way in our Remembrance ceremonies? My experience at Coventry, not to mention many visits to Germany, suggests that it is not as difficult as it sounds to make small but important gestures of friendship on these vitally important national occasions. Germany has been prominent among our continental partners since 1945 in helping build the common European home that we share. Anglo-German friendships flourish all over Britain through sporting, civic and cultural exchanges. Is it not time to give this public recognition on this most solemn day? 

I don't want to be insensitive to the feelings of ex-service men and women, though I have never come across rancour or bitterness in any of those I have known. The opposite, in fact. But if you ask why this touches me personally, as well as being suggested by my Christian faith, it's all part of my family history. As the child of a British father and a German mother, I began to learn at an early age that nursing ill-feeling is simply feeding a poison-tree, to quote William Blake. My Jewish mother and grandmother had been driven out of Germany by the Nazis and had lost relatives and friends in the death camps. My father served with the UK armed forces but I never recalled him uttering a word of hostility against his former enemy. 

Today, 9 November, is not only Remembrance Sunday. This year, it also happens to mark the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany in 1989. All thoughts in Germany today have been on the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the end of division, the hopes for the new future that opened up for the German people a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps this is the time to think in new ways about those who did us grievous harm but now count themselves among our friends. Not 'forgive and forget' - reconciliation is far more difficult and costly than that. But maybe, 'we can't forget, nor should we. But we can begin to forgive'. It could add an important dimension not only to what we remember today, but how to remember well. 

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. He prayed for them from the cross in those words quoted in the ruins at Coventry, 'Father, forgive'. Nothing less than this is needed if we are truly to heal memories. You could say that this is how we 'remember forward' towards the better world we hope and pray for and, on this day, publicly pledge ourselves to help build. 

More about Germany in the two previous blogs inspired by Neil MacGregor's magnificent series of programmes on BBC Radio 4. 

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