history


Thirty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. What follows is the basic text of a lecture I gave at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 6 November. It was followed by a very good Q & A which is not recorded here.

In a crowded field I think Timothy Garton Ash’s books on Europe stand out. His The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 (just updated this month) is an eye-witness account of these momentous events. His book The File is fascinating. His book of essays Facts Are Subversive repays careful reading (and see my review of it here). Yes, I am a fan.

Here is the (very long) basic text of the lecture:

Memory is not an uncomplicated matter. If my own memory is suspect, then corporate memory offers even more opportunities for selectivity. We select those elements of our past that help construct the narrative that makes sense of, or gives shape to, the life we either think we have had or wish we had had. We all do it, and every society, country or community does it.

If you don’t believe me, then look at any tourist display blurb and ask what it doesn’t tell you. Or, perhaps more pertinently to where we are at in Brexitannia just now, listen to the language. I give two quick examples before getting to my main theme.

First, contrary to assertions by some politicians, England (let alone Britain) did not win the Second World War singlehandedly, pluckily standing in isolated bravery against the Nazi empire: our European neighbours provided huge numbers of people not only in the resistance on the mainland, but also fighting with Allied forces across the globe. Then ask further about Commonwealth citizens whose contribution has not always been acknowledged or rewarded.

Secondly, the British Empire was not primarily an example of “the world’s greatest trading power”. It is shocking how the new Brexit appeal to our imperial past stresses our excellence and success in global trade without any mention of oppression, exploitation or military power. (Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire, points out that prior to the British colonising his country India held 23% of global trade; by the time the British left India they had 3%. Draw your own conclusions.)

Now, you might wonder why, in beginning a lecture on where the world is thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I have begun with these particular examples of selective collective remembering. Well, the answer is simply that it might be easier to think about post-1989 Europe and the competing narratives being spun about it if first we have looked closer to home at our own limitations and failures.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Two weeks ago I stood outside St Vitus Cathedral at the heart of Prague’s Pražsky Hrad and opposite the residence of the Czech President since independence post-1989. I went over to look at some display boards that tell some of the history of the residence. There is only a single line about the post-war pre-1989 period. It says something like: “Even during the time of unfreedom some important people visited this place, including the famous astronaut Yuri Gagarin.” That is the sole mention of the Communist period. Did Stalin visit? Or Honecker? Or any other head of state? Or just an astronaut?

I cite this example because what is omitted tells a powerful story – for now, at least. 1945-89: 44 years of recent history – lived through by most people alive today – simply ignored.

Yet, go down the hill from the Hrad and there is a special exhibition of photography celebrating events across Eastern Europe in 1989. To get in you have to pass a chunk of the Berlin Wall with a Trabi sat on top of it. You then get to walk around a garden and through a building with an excellent and haunting display of photographs from the GDR, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Of course, these images capture moments when the people involved did not know how the story would end. There was no guarantee that, despite Glasnost in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the troops wouldn’t once again follow the tanks into Wenceslas Square or down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. I look at the photographs through a lens that lived (albeit at a not disinterested distance) through the events recorded, and I know what did happen next.

Fall of the Wall exhibition, Prague

I also remember the euphoria. It was hard to believe in late 1989 that the ultimate symbol of division was being demolished by ordinary people while soldiers looked on. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria, the decade-long demonstrations in the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland, the pressure on the West German Embassy in Prague, to mention just a few phenomena that contributed to the demise of a divided Europe, didn’t quite hold the symbolic power of a wall of death being picked apart.

The world was changing before our eyes, and it wasn’t long before politicians and commentators alike were proclaiming the end of a bi-polar world, the triumph of free-market capitalism, world peace and a glorious future. ‘Freedom’ was the byword and, despite Margaret Thatcher’s serious hesitations about the reunification of Germany, optimism was never going to be defeated by rational judgement.

What happened next might best be related to a parable Jesus told about a man who was delivered of a demon, only to allow a whole community of demons to occupy the now-vacant space. If you want to understand where the Russian oligarchs got all their vast resources of money, this is where to look. The collapse of a structure – not just political, but social and psychological – left a vacuum into which those best equipped to exploit it quietly stepped. As Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 illustrates perfectly, there are particular people whose expertise and instincts lie precisely in exploiting other people’s chaos for their own benefit. We’ll come back to this shortly.

But, first, let’s recall a few facts. Following the defeat of Germany in May 1945, the country was occupied by four powers: America, Britain, France and the USSR – each given their own zone. Berlin, located in the Soviet Zone, was itself divided between the four. The three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which made the formal establishment of the German Democratic Republic (from the Soviet Zone) inevitable. Movement across borders remained fairly straightforward until the numbers of people migrating out of the GDR into the FRG pushed the authorities into doing the unthinkable: building a wall. On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to find barbed wire blocking the border roads while workman began to erect a militarised concrete wall across the city. 27 miles long, it eventually held 302 guard towers and 55,000 landmines; 5,000 people escaped over or under the wall (including 1,300 guards). 327 people were killed along the German border, 262 of them in Berlin, including 24 border guards who were shot while on duty (usually for refusing to shoot civilians trying to escape). More than 200 border guards committed suicide, but most deaths involved civilians, 80% of whom were under the age of 35 (of which 10% were women).

The mantra within the GDR was that the wall was needed to prevent people flocking into the workers’ paradise from the western capitalist prison. The real reason was to stop people leaving, especially those needed if the socialist economy was to be built and protected. In 1989 30,000 East Germans fled when Hungary opened its borders temporarily; they sought refuge in West German embassies in other Warsaw Pact countries. The pressure built; Gorbachev, seeing the need for radical economic and political change, had opened the door in people’s imagination, and it would not now be closed. The 40th anniversary of the GDR took place in October 1989. Within a few weeks it began to cease to exist.

There is a strange symmetry to Germany, but one that we might note before looking shortly at what is happening there now. The Holocaust began its public expression and gained public sanction on 9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht, when Jews and their properties were directly attacked by violent Nazis and any pretence at civility in the political sphere died. The nightmare of the Third Reich, followed by the destruction of the war, the subsequent division of Germany and the failure of the Communist experiment in enforced ‘freedom’ – all collapsed into the euphoria of 9 November 1989 when the Wall was finally breached and the prison gates opened at last. Half a century of people’s lives, and now freedom.

The problem with politics is that politicians cannot always afford to tell us the truth. The language of liberation hid the realities and costs of change. Freedom always comes at some cost at some level, but the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was the destruction of eastern industry and the loss of a secure way of life. The reunification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990, but was, in fact, a take-over. Overnight many East Germans lost their homeland, their identity, their system, their flag, anthems and institutions, their values and their future. The West was going to put right what had been so wrong in the East; no value was attributed to anything experienced in the GDR between 1949 and 1989. The GDR had been annexed and had to assume the shape of the winners. Christian Wolter, a carpenter, lamented: “There was a uniqueness to East German society that didn’t exist in the West. There was something we had which I can only describe as solidarity.” Gerhard Mertschenk, an official with the East German Olympic Committee and a member of the SED (the Party) was blunt: “There was no unification, there was colonisation. I found myself on the garbage heap at 46.”

Much more could be said – not least that change inevitably brings cost: West Germans paid tax increases in order to invest and transform the former GDR economy and infrastructure. Long-term gain might bring short-term pain. But, if we are to understand what is happening in Eastern Europe today, we must at least try to enter into the experience of many who celebrated the fall of the Wall in 1989 only later to ask if all was as it appeared or, indeed, was promised. The diminishment of memory on the part of the ‘losers’ in the Cold War has only fed the sense of exploitation, resentment and devaluing experienced still by many in the East. (If you want to understand a little more, two films illustrate the phenomenon of change and what life looked like before and after. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) and Goodbye Lenin are worth a watch.)

Of the many points that might be made from the experience of the last thirty years, it is the disillusionment that holds the key to much of what we are witnessing now. Yes, living standards improved for most people, but, on average, people in the former GDR territories of Germany earn 75% of people in the west of the country; GDP is 66% of that in the west and unemployment nearly 5% higher; the percentage of young people under 20 is considerably lower in the east than in the west. Although other measures are better (for example, life expectancy, completion of secondary education and employment rates among mothers), the rise of the Far Right and the popularity of populist demagogues across the world suggest that, contrary to western capitalist assumptions, people are actually motivated by more than money, security and consumerism. Westernisation has not led to paradise, after all.

I want to come back later to the role of the churches in all this, but, for now, we need to take a look at what is happening now, thirty years after the fall of the wall. And Germany, which I know best, is illustrative of wider phenomena.

Reunification saw a rise in xenophobia and attacks on migrants and foreigners in the east. Neo-Nazi parties gained traction, but never gained enough open support to make a significant mark on electoral politics. That has all begun to change.

Regional elections in Saxony on 1 September this year saw the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) come second with 25% of the vote. On the same day in Brandenburg the AfD got 27.5% of the vote. On 27 October in Thuringia the Left Party won, but the centre-right CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) fell to third place behind the AfD. How and why are the extremes pulling in the votes while the centre is collapsing?

As usual in these matters, there are many reasons and they are complex. Some are even just speculative: extrapolating future electoral behaviour from a vote today is a dangerous game and should be treated with caution. But, we can be fairly certain that three factors are having a powerful impact on electoral behaviour in these former East German Länder:

First, despite Angela Merkel being an East German, her government has increasingly been seen as an elite who take power for granted. Longevity in government, however successful, breeds a sense of tiredness and a need for change. Secondly, Merkel’s welcoming of North African migrants into Germany demonstrated firm moral integrity and purpose, but it legitimised a growing resentment in Germany about how the nature of the country was changing. This in turn was fed by a similar phenomenon to that in Brexit Britain: that global empowerment was leading to local powerlessness, and that local identity was being diminished and diluted by intrusion. Thirdly, the seeds of authoritarian ‘illiberal democracy’ (to use Viktor Orban’s words) found ready soil in those communities that feel increasingly left behind, neglected or fearful of losing their future.

Of course, these phenomena are not unique to Germany. The winners of globalisation do not have to worry about local identity as they treat the planet as an endless resource for their own economic and personal growth. The losers – or those whose grievances can be massaged by populist leaders, even if the loss is hard to evidence – are reasserting the local over against the global … and the costs, where identified, are regarded as a price worth paying.

This picture is being painted across Eastern Europe. As a number of commentators have been pointing out in recent weeks – in anticipation of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – three decades’ experience have persuaded many people that the gods of western free-market liberalism (economic as well as cultural) have proved as illusory as the defeated gods of Communism, Nazism and imperialism. That’s the problem with empires. Disillusionment creates a longing for security, often searched for in the nostalgic reaches of a romanticised memory.

The result is that Germany is now struggling with the end of the Merkel generation, appears unable to find a successful transition, whilst being challenged by a right-wing nationalist movement that is growing in confidence. It might not last, but it is clearly worrying for many Germans whose memory of the early twentieth century is still raw. They know fascism when they see it.

Frank Richter, a theologian and activist in Dresden, has identified the root of dissatisfaction in the experience of drastic change. “These multi-layered factors [young/old, educated/less educated, urban/rural, etc.] are extremely pronounced in East Germany because the people here have already experienced so much drastic change in their lives. Many people feel overwhelmed, and the populists play this tune terrifically.”

When Pegida started marching in Dresden and other cities in Thuringia they chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” To English ears this doesn’t sound very remarkable. But, this was the cry in East Germany in the run up to 1989. “Das Volk” has a resonance and deep connotations in German that “the people” does not quite capture in English. And where you put the stress matters enormously: “Wir sind das Volk!” or “Wir sind das Volk!” And, of course, there are resonances with the Nazis’ appropriation of the term in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. But, what was the cry of the crowds pushing for change in the GDR has now become the slogan of identity for the resurgent far right. In both cases – 1989 and 2019 – “Wir sind das Volk” articulates a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a statement of intent to reassert identity over against the seemingly powerful neglect of ordinary people and their concerns.

Which brings us to the role of the churches.

I have a friend in Berlin who doesn’t like the film Das Leben der Anderen. He thinks it romanticises the role of the Stasi in the GDR and their impact on ordinary people. He once described to me how, coming home one evening as a young man, he heard his parents’ conversation from inside their apartment … on the radio in the car outside. Instead, he pointed me to a film called simply Nikolaikirche. This, he felt, told a truer story.

The Nikolaikirche in Leipzig was the venue for ‘peace prayers’ held every Monday evening. Christian Führer, the Lutheran pastor of the church, described how these meetings grew from 600 in 1988 to over 4000 by September 1989. There were – reportedly – 28 Stasi officers watching the pastor day and night. These prayer meetings were perceived to be a serious threat to the regime. Christian Führer tells some wonderful stories about this time and these events in his book Und wir sind dabei gewesen: Die Revolution, die aus der Kirche kam. The church events led to peaceful demonstrations and, despite provocation, beatings and threats, Führer’s leadership and moral courage shaped the outcome of these confrontations. On 9 October 1989 – one month before the fall of the Wall – over 70,000 people moved from the church through the city of Leipzig chanting “Wir sind das Volk”. Not a single shot was fired. As Führer said: “There was tremendous relief that there was no Chinese solution and a feeling that if 70,000 could achieve what they wanted, then East Germany was no longer the same country it had been that morning. The regime had been expecting everything. The only thing they weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers.” When the church was occupied by 600 communist officials one day, they were shocked to find that instead of stone-throwing counter-revolutionaries, they actually found people praying and singing hymns.

This is an example of how, not knowing the end of the story (and fearing it might be bloody failure), the church opened up space for conversation, dissent and resistance whilst urging peaceful challenge for constructive change. It is probably worth noting at this point that protestors at this point wanted reform and not necessarily abolition of the state. But, the church’s involvement and leadership was crucial.

However, once the revolution had happened and, eventually, Germany was reunited, the church’s influence slowly declined. Church membership in the east is still well below that in the west, and, according to a recent book by theologian and television journalist Arnd Henze (Kann Kirche Demokratie?), membership of the church is statistically more likely to align with right-wing sentiments than with those that motivated East Germans to seek freedom from communist oppression. It is as if the churches had served their purpose and now had little to offer to those shaping a different political future.

Of course, this isn’t all that can be said about the church in the east. But, there is a marked difference between the churches in the west and the confidence of those in the east. Currently, there is a spat going on in Thuringia because the Protestant (Evangelical-Lutheran) bishop of Saxony, Carsten Rentzing, resigned following discovery of things he had written in the past in support of far-right ideologies. (Saxony is the Landeskirche in which our link Kirchenkreis Erfurt is located.) He was clearly conservative on many social and ethical issues, but when challenged from within the church to respond to criticism of his earlier views, he simply went silent and eventually submitted his resignation. I have read the materials in question – and much of the reportage arising from his resignation – and it is hard not to sympathise with those church members wanting him to explain himself, not least how he might justify his views theologically. He still has not spoken. A petition in favour of him remaining the bishop has reportedly been signed by around 15,000 people.

So, even the church is challenged. The source of dissent and peaceful resistance against the previous regime is now divided over the legitimacy of views that would not shame German ideology of the 1930s. What might this have to say to us – in a country where the Labour Party is being investigated for its anti-semitism, several Labour MPs have either resigned or defected because of this anti-semitism, and Jewish Labour has told Jews not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party?

Perhaps the first thing is that people are very fickle. Conviction and passion for justice can take terrible turns when the conditions (or the objects of protest) change. Given the nature of Germany’s fairly recent history, it is hard from the outside to work out how anti-semitism, rejection of dispossessed and powerless migrants and resurgent passion for ‘German identity’ have become popular once again. The churches – certainly church leaders – are once again facing questions they thought had been closed down in 1945.

But, perhaps we need to be realistic about human beings and collective memory. In his great autobiography The Time of my Life Denis Healey suggested that politicians who have never fought in or experienced a war are more likely to send our troops into war in the future. We now have a younger generation for whom Hitler and the Holocaust are the stuff of history books and documentaries that relate to a different and long-gone world. Keeping an honest collective memory alive is a difficult task. Living in the present in the light of the past is not straightforward or simple. The building of contemporary walls, ostensibly to protect a nation’s purity and security, might have some popular appeal, but only if we simultaneously forget the real and symbolic power of actual walls in our recent history. Walls do not work.

Eastern Europe is seeing a resurgence of nationalism. Having escaped the suffocating grip of the Soviet bloc, there is little appetite for handing new political freedoms (or sovereignty) over to what some perceive as another empire – the European Union. Those countries that embraced Europe in the aftermath of communism’s demise have grown confident in trumpeting their own identities whilst commandeering Christianity over against the threats from Islam and ‘people not like us’. This defence of Christendom is unlikely to stand in the longer-term when it is linked inextricably with nationalism, xenophobia, a declining birth-rate and fear of those powers growing in confidence: China, India, and so on. However, it might have contemporary appeal at a time of widespread disillusionment, economic stress and identity anxiety.

This is where we might conclude and move on to discussion and questions. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev on 12 June 1987 (the 750th anniversary of Berlin) to “tear down this wall!”, he did the easy bit. Knocking down walls is a start; but, shaping the space that is then created is a much more challenging task. And the churches – here, in Germany, in Hungary and elsewhere – face the same old questions, regardless of whether or not we are successful or whether people use us to achieve peace and then forget us. Faithfulness to God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love even our enemies matters more than packing the pews and winning approval. Times will change and sentiment will move on. But, we read the Bible and the Bible tells a story of transience, unfaithfulness and people who as easily shout “Hosanna!” as they do “Crucify him!”.

Europe faces a challenging future. Thirty years are not long. Things can change quickly. A culture and its institutions can take centuries to build up, but they can be destroyed in days. The Wall should not be forgotten, nor should the reasons for its demolition. But, it should remain not as a mere historical memory of unspeakable division and cruelty in the past, but serve as a living symbol that strikes our imagination as we seek to shape the future.

Every government should fire one advisor and appoint one historian. I have remarked on this before, especially when reviewing Christopher Clark's study of the origins of the First World War, 'Sleepwalkers', and noting how Angela Merkel's cabinet famously read it and took a day out to discuss it with the historian directly. It is no wonder that history repeats itself so regularly when decision-makers fail to be reminded of history – that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' is the book I have been waiting for. Unforgivably ignorant of the broad sweep of Roman history, the narrative drives on dramatically, and the book is hard to put down – even at the beach. Now I have the five Caesars in some semblance of order in my head: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, with bits of others thrown in. It is a wonderful read of a horrendous story.

But, what it evokes is the sense that some things never change. If Blair and Bush launched a war in Iraq before considering how to win the peace when the big guns stopped firing, they clearly didn't look back to the Caesars. If we take for granted in Europe the seventy years of peaceful coexistence, a reading of history would remind us that empires come and go, that people get bored of peace, that memories are shorter than a couple of generations, that hubris-fuelled violence is never far away. Civilisation is thin – fragile. A century of hard-won pax under Augustus can quickly subside into the cataclysm of a Nero.

So, it is the resonance with the contemporary that makes Tom Holland's book go deep. It is a brilliant read, its funniest line being the observation on the post-matricidal Nero that “Comet or not, there could be no doubting who was the real star” of the subsequent mass crowd-pleasing festivities (p.363).

(I will also remember the recorded wisdom of Claudius to the Senators: “Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition was a novelty once.” (p.371))

 

This morning my office was emptied and sent to the new office in Leeds where it will open for business on 30 April.

As the last bits were being loaded we came across three boxes containing the manuscripts of Bishop Blunt's sermons (he was the second Bishop of Bradford – from 1931-55), the original texts of his Presidential Addresses to the Bradford Diocesan Conference, and an envelope containing the correspondence he received following the address that sparked the abdication crisis in December 1936. It will need to be properly archived (once I have found out to whom they legally belong and to whom they should be disposed).

Clearly, people were as horrible then as they can be now. The internet has speeded up the pace at which vitriol can be sent, but the green ink letters I read this afternoon also betray bile and venom – albeit in beautiful and elegant English.

The abdication crisis was provoked by Bishop Blunt – in the context of asserting everybody's need of God's grace, but aware of the gossip about the King's relationship with Mrs Simpson (although he denied knowing and said he had been referring to the king' slack of churchgoing) – adding one sentence:

… if he is to do his duty faithfully, we hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.

This sentence was picked up by the media and the scandal erupted. The rest is history.

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:

I’d love to wish everyone a happy new year, but, apart from the general sentiment involved, I wouldn’t actually know what I was wishing you. I’m not sure that happiness – despite its elevation in the US Constitution as one of the ultimate human pursuits – is all it is cracked up to be. It seems to me that most human beings on the planet would settle for survival and freedom from fear.

Well, we are about to launch into a year of commemoration. In fact, we face four years of remembering that only a century ago the world fell apart. All the optimism for the new century, coupled with pride in the inexorable progress of science and technology, would shortly lie bleeding in the fields of Flanders. Humans never seem to change when it comes to violence.

Yet, my guess is that as 1913 gave way to 1914, most people just got on with their life and paid little attention to the seeds of overwhelming destructiveness that were already being sown in Europe. Did anyone really think, when they wished each other a happy new year at midnight, that just after the summer holidays that year a whole generation of young men would begin the four-year slaughter that would in turn sow the seeds of the Second World War? Or did they just wish, as we might do, that everything would turn out OK and that everyone would miraculously start being nice to each other?

If we learn anything from history it must surely be that what appears to be ‘normal’ and stable in the world is actually extremely fragile. Remember the faith we placed in global capitalism until the banking emperors were seen to be naked in 2008 – with many of the poorest of our people still paying the price?

Perhaps the beginning of happiness lies in recognizing this fragility of life, and daring to be challenged by cries for justice even when they cost us dearly. The Hebrew prophets saw through the thin pragmatic veneers of affluence and power, and called on people to be captivated by a vision that was more humane and of eternal value – regardless of how costly its pursuit might turn out to be. Jesus invited people on the edge and people at the centre of power to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

I will shortly be back in Germany – a country I visit frequently and one that has lived through two world wars, the Holocaust, Communism and now democratic capitalism. In the city of Halle there is a tram stop called Frohe Zukunft, Happy Future. But the question is: do happy futures just happen, or do we create them? Happiness can quickly turn to horror. And this fragility should evoke humility – the desire to live well and the resolve to live better.

 

Just back from the Remembrance Day observations in Bradford. A couple of thousand people turned out and observed two minutes silence at 11am. We also sang and prayed. Why? And what for?

Last night, for the first time in many years, I watched the whole Festival of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall. Why? Well, because we have two Swiss friends staying with us and this is a uniquely British phenomenon – along with the Last Night of the Proms and the Changing of the Guard. And, if I am honest (and can bear to bang my familiar drum again), when you watch something like this in the presence of foreigners, you watch it through different eyes – explaining it and asking yourself why such a ceremony has the particular form and content it does.

Last night was a real tear-jerker, especially when the young girl who had sung ran to her father as he entered the hall to surprise her; he still has three months of Navy duty to do on the other side of the world. The family testimonies of people whose loved ones have been killed in recent conflicts were as powerful as ever. But, why sing hymns and say prayers? Why bring God into this? Isn't the 'God on our side' mentality the cause of conflict anyway?

Well, again, last night was powerful partly because it combines proud pageantry (and epic television production) with raw collective emotion. And in the midst of a busy world it compels us to step back, shut up and reflect on both human mortality and the hubris of power. At no point was war glorified or blind patriotism enjoined. At no point was conflict romanticised or propagandised. At every point we saw both the complex morality of war and the devastating cost of violence – along with examples of sheer courage exercised in the field of conflict.

I was interested to see both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg singing the hymns although both are declared atheists. This is NOT a criticism of them. But, I think that when you bring God in to any reflection of human mortality we go beyond human conventions (about the meaning of life and death) and find ourselves held before a far more serious bar. Of course, this bar is not subject to passing fancy or political fashion – it holds human life as infinitely valuable (a clear theological anthropology that does not leave human life subject to 'convenient re-valuing') and eternally significant (ethics matter and not just to particular human beings or societies). I wonder what political leaders think when they are not the top dog and when the language and ceremony relativises their power?

I hope it leads to humility as an antidote to any temptation to hubris.

This was all a mystery to the Swiss, who have no similar public commemoration of their history. I am not sure if any other country does such commemoration as we do today. But, I remain convinced that if we didn't have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it. We need at least one day a year when we stop and shut up, when we ritually re-member our collective past (and recognise that we don't live in a historical or incontingent vacuum), when we confront hubris with humility, and when we recognise stories of courage and loss. There is nothing romantic or heroic about seeing a mother grieve the son who fell in a war he didn't choose.

That's enough.

 

I was around in Southwark for the 40th anniversary memories of the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God. This year is the 50th anniversary. In this week's Church Times the excellent Mark Vernon runs though the issues again before Richard Harries puts it all in to a personal context.

Honest to God caused a huge debate. Robinson called for a re-think of theology and the purpose of the church. En route he drew on Bonhoeffer's thinking, but didn't quite go where I think Bonhoeffer himself might have been heading. Big headlines didn't help the seriousness of his case, but it did lead to discussions everywhere about God. (In today's world this is the responsibility of the New Atheists who, in trying to diss God and theists end up getting people talking about God and theism – fulfilling the Law of Unintended Consequences, I guess.)

What Richard Harries does is place the phenomenon into the wider cultural and political context of the 1960s, and particularly its idealism. Which, of course, immediately points up the danger of reading history through a contemporary lens. The debates about Margaret Thatcher did the same: it was easy to spot those who hadn't lived through the 1970s and those who had.

The loss of idealism is troubling. Students these days are hardly likely to annoy the hell out of taxpayers by demonstrating; they have to concentrate on minimising and then paying off massive debts before they have even started.

The contrast is acute for me when I go to Kazakhstan and talk with young people who, whilst being realistic about the 'challenges', are immensely proud of their 22 year old country and seriously optimistic about the future. The only way I have been able to think about this is that they are building something and shaping a future – a bit like European countries after 1945. Contrast that with the tired cynicism that characterises Europe and we seem not to be building something, but merely trying half-heatedly on to something we have inherited.

This is also true of European ecumenism. At a round-table discussion with Herman von Rumpoy last year in Brussels, I ventured to suggest that the European narrative derived from two world wars and the shedding of oceans of blood had run its course. Yes, we must learn from our recent history, and, as Bertolt Brecht says in the conclusion of his play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, recognise that 'the bitch [of fascism] is on heat again. But, I fear that the narrative emerging from mid-20th century Europe does not hold the same power for my children's generation as it does for those of us shaped by the war. We need to create a new narrative that engages the subconscious psyche of a new generation for whom the twentieth century is 'history' and not 'memory'.

OK, it is not exactly a deep observation; but, it is one that haunts me. I think it is a task that is urgent and yet being largely ignored. All efforts go into trying to secure what we have (largely, the institutions that define Europe in terms of administration and process), rather than creating something imaginatively new.

This is on my mind also because I have just finished reading Cees Nooteboom's book Roads to Berlin. It is a strange book. In three parts, the bulk of the text comprises reportage and memoir from immediately before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989/90. It is immediate and has the vivid benefit of recreating the atmosphere in Berlin as the world changed – all seen through the eyes of an outsider (he is Dutch) living through, yet detached from, those epic events. In parts 2 and 3 he reflects back on those events and on Germany and 'Germanness' twenty years later.

It is an uneven book, but better for it. It is unpretentious – although there were many references I didn't get, and this made me feel both uneducated and a bit stupid. But, it is a good read for anyone who wants to think about history, how we live through and reflect on it, how we need to look at ourselves through the eyes of an other if we are to think clearly about who we are and how/why we have become who and what we are.

The trouble with history is that we always think that 'now' is the ultimate – the end – when it is only tomorrow's yesterday and will look different when looked back upon by outsiders.

Oh well. Back to contemplating the future of Luis Suarez…

 

Yesterday was Remembrance Day (der Volkstrauertag) in Germany.

I left Erfurt on Sunday afternoon, having taken part in the morning service in the Predigerkirche. This is where Meister Eckhart was the prior, and you can still touch the wood that he touched when leading his Dominican monks in worship here in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

The service was packed – loads of young families with loads of children, elderly people, and everything in-between. The Lektorin who preached was excellent. I just brought a Grußwort at the beginning of the service, then enjoyed the rest of it without responsibility.

It's always instructive to share in someone else's memory. The poignant-yet-triumphant patriotism that sometimes characterises Remembrance Day events in England was entirely absent. Not only is Volkstrauertag for remembering the dead and the fallen in war, but it is also for rehearsing what caused war in the first place.

No romanticism, then, in the place where Hitler did his worst – and even the Roman Catholic Cathedral still has a wooden carving in the chancel of a Christian crusader knight on his horse fighting (and defeating) a Jew riding a pig. No sanitising of history here in order to shape a different – or more convenient – narrative. No hiding behind fantasy from the shocking consequences of conventional inhumanity or fearful silence.

I was reminded of a line from RS Thomas's poem The Evacuee: “… she leaped from a scorched story of the charred past”.

The other place that brings this home is outside the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg. This is the town where in 1517 Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche, thus igniting what became the Reformation. This is where the grace of God was found and proclaimed… and where the Stadtkirche still has built into its exterior (just below the eaves of the south-east end) a relief of Jews being baited in a pig sty. It could have been removed as an offence – and this was considered at the time it was rediscovered after German reunification when buildings neglected by the soulless DDR were being renovated in the 1990s. But, it was kept as a reminder that history cannot simply be removed in order to temper our contemporary sensibilities… and beneath it was placed a permanent memorial to the Jews of Wittenberg who experienced a more contemporary form of the old brutality.

Sitting there in Meister Eckhart's church yesterday morning another German memory revived in my mind. In 1999 I stayed for five weeks with German friends in Jakarta, Indonesia. While there I was taken on a trip through Bandung and other places. Up in the hills one day we drove for miles, visiting a tea plantation and then heading up into the terraced hills. Way off the beaten track we came to a small settlement in the middle of nowhere and I had no idea why we were there.

A short walk led us to a small cemetery containing (if I remember accurately) just half a dozen European-style graves. The story goes that during the Second World War a group of German soldiers was posted here. When the war ended, so ashamed were they of what had been done both by them and in their name, that they decided not to return immediately to Germany, but to stay and serve that small community of Indonesians. They all died of diseases fairly quickly and they are all buried here. The German Government pays for the upkeep of this small piece of earth that is pregnant with both the sadness and generosity of humanity.

Everywhere there is a story to be told and a story to be heard. And often the heard story will challenge the prejudices, preoccupations and absolutisms we nurture when confined to the familiar and the assumed.

The final bit of memory on Sunday actually arose the previous day. I was shown round the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Severikirche by the Dompropst. The Severikirche contains the tomb and relics of St Severus who was elected Bishop of Ravenna in 342AD. Two things struck me whilst standing before the tomb: (a) there is a clear relief showing the Holy Spirit sitting on the head of Severus, identifying him as the one chosen by God to be bishop; and (b) atop the tomb the reclining figures of Severus, his wife and his daughter.

Think about it. (I asked the Dompropst what the Pope thinks about the great saint-bishop having been a married father and still chosen by God and the church to be a bishop. This led to an interesting conversation – for which I am very grateful – about the nature of priestly ministry, celibacy and other matters close to the church both here and there.)

(And then I got my highest ever score for my fantasy league football team…)

 

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