The participation of Germany’s head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the Armistice Day celebrations in London was a moving testament to the long journey of reconciliation and healing between Britain and Germany. It was mirrored at our own small church yesterday, where I was so pleased to see the young German family who often worship with us coming in with their second child, just 10 days old.
War forces us to divide the world up crudely into allies or enemies, yet there is always so much more that we have in common – especially as European peoples – than what separates us. There is a poignant war memorial in the chapel at Westminster College, the United Reformed Church’s theological training centre in Cambridge. The plaque commemorating the college’s students who died in the Second World War is unique in Britain, for it includes the names of two German soldiers. In 1938 these two students were studying, serving and worshipping together alongside their British brothers as they all trained to become pastors. But within a few months they were forced to don different uniforms and assume the role of enemies – at least militarily – on opposite sides of the conflict.
Commemorations of war by the victors will inevitably be different to those of the vanquished, but it is dangerous to overlook the impact of war on the defeated side. For example, there were 744,000 British combat deaths in the First World War, but 1.8 million German casualties. And while Allied war graves are well tended and frequently visited in France and Belgium, the German war memorials, where they were permitted to be marked, are neglected and rarely receive visitors.
Indeed it was the flawed policy of the Treaty of Versailles – that Germany should bear the blame for the Great War and make full reparations to the Allied powers – that was a major cause of Hitler’s rise to power 15 years later. The Allies may have won the war, but they failed to ‘win the peace’, and establish a sustainable new basis for relationship between the two nations.
That was more successful following the Second World War, as the Council of Europe (first proposed by Winston Churchill) and the later European Economic Community were set up to bind together the former adversaries into such interdependence to make war unthinkable, even impossible, in the future.
As I reflect on the ways we remember the World Wars, it emphasises the natural tendency of victors in any conflict – whether ideological or military – to assume that their policies or arguments are entirely correct and justified, while those of the defeated side were wrong or evil. That’s why it is so important to remember not only the lives lost in world wars, but also to re-examine the reasons and arguments put forward for going to war in the first place.
Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them. This teaching is usually written off as idealistic, but Jesus was looking beyond whatever short-term grounds there may be for conflict, towards a basis for peace in the long term – rooted in mercy, forgiveness and a recognition of our common humanity. Such love has an even deeper power though, to transform enemies into brothers and sisters – united by the love and forgiveness of Christ.
So while we are right to remember the senseless suffering of the trenches, and the courage and sacrifice of those lambs sent to the slaughter, let us learn to defuse the potential time bombs of resentment and hostility towards anyone we might be tempted to see as enemies today – and consider how to apply Jesus’ radical message of transformation.