This summer our family spent a week in Germany. Rarely an hour went by without one of us hissing to the other, in Basil-Fawlty-like tones, “Don’t mention the war!!!”
The Germans we met didn’t mention it either. Except our lovely English-speaking German tour guide on our walking tour of Berlin. She couldn’t get around it, and from her commentary I learned a lot about how modern Germans view “The War,” which led me to the surprising conclusion that the rest of us can learn a lot from the Germans.
Especially when we got to this spot:
It’s a sculpture called Mother with her Dead Son, by an artist named Kathe Kollwitz, who lost her son in WWI, her grandson in WWII, and was herself subjected to tyranny and censorship under the Nazi regime. It stands in an otherwise empty building called the Neue Wache, with an open space in the ceiling above the sculpture so that on rainy days — like the day we were there — the sculpture of mother and son is exposed to the elements, washed by the rain. Even full of tourists with cameras, it’s a powerful and moving place.
Our guide, Carolina, explained a little before she brought us there about why war memorials are so difficult in Germany. Having elected a leader as obviously evil as Hitler within the living memory of older Germans, and with the world being all too aware of Nazi atrocities, Germans can’t hide from the fact that when they remember their war dead they have to also remember their own victims. Someone in Germany today might be mourning the loss of a grandfather killed in the Second World War, but they might also have to confront the fact that their grandfather was a concentration camp guard who was responsible for the death of hundreds of Jews and other prisoners. The words on the floor of the Neue Wache, in front of Kollwitz’s sculpture, simply say “To the Victims of War and Tyranny.”
I have complicated feelings about Remembrance Day. As a pacifist, I certainly want to honour the courage of our dead soldiers past and present, but I mourn their loss not as a glorious sacrifice but as a tragic waste. I’m not comfortable with Remembrance Day ceremonies that gloss over the ugliness of war or exult in our own country’s victories without considering that our veterans also had to be killers, that losses on our own side were matched by the losses of soldiers, just as young and loved and lovely, on the enemy side. And that, more and more in modern warfare, our soldiers often find themselves committing acts against civilians that horrify the soldiers themselves.
That’s what I admire about the way the Germans have been forced to confront their memories of World War Two. That’s what I found moving in the Neue Wache. Germany can’t — the world won’t let them — forget or ignore their own atrocities; they’re forced to remember them along with their losses. Those of us whose forbears were on the winning side sometimes have the luxury of forgetting that. We cheer the indomitable spirit of Londoners in the Blitz and conveniently ignore the bombing of Dresden. With effort we can ignore even Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that effort allows us to ignore the immoral basis of some of our present wars, and the things our own military finds itself condoning.
War is ugly, and I resist any attempt to make it beautiful. I honour our war dead on Remembrance Day with an attitude that says, “Let’s work towards a world in which these ceremonies, these memorials, are not necessary.”
Is that even possible? It often seems not, and teaching history, as I sometimes do, can be a discouraging profession. But the endless struggle between hope and despair I’ll save for another post. Today, November 11, I’ll simply say, “Lest we forget.” Remember war — all of it, including the parts where our own country comes off looking like the oppressor — lest we forget, and are doomed to repeat it.