This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (broadcast from Berlin and focusing on the impact on Germany of Brexit):

I was in Vienna recently and saw something that sums up the challenge of Germany in the last century. At one end of the Judenplatz is the haunting Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread; facing it, twenty metres away, is a statue of the philosopher, poet and Enlightenment hero Johann Gottfried Herder who re-shaped German education and culture. The question that cries out is this: how did Germany go from Herder to Hitler in a mere century?

This is the question that Germany has been unable to escape in the last seventy years or so. Walk around any German city and you will find yourself stepping on small brass plaques in the pavement bearing the name and dates of Jews deported to their deaths from the houses before which you now stand. They are everywhere – and they are called Stolpersteine: stumbling blocks that get in your way and compel you to face responsibility for what happened to your neighbours only a generation or two ago.

Because of its history Germany has had no option but to confront its past and choose its future. Yet, as time moves on and memory becomes history, revisionism becomes easier for some people. Recent changes in the political landscape come on the back of concerns about immigration in general and Islam in particular. Yet this phenomenon was almost inconceivable only a decade ago.

What it demonstrates is that human beings all too easily re-shape their worldview according to the world they now live in. We can accommodate all sorts of challenges to our ethics … until we find their foundation has been undercut and we have given away too much. Perhaps history teaches us that it is not a big step from ‘every human being matters’ to ‘some matter more than others’ to ‘these are not really people of value’.

If you go into Berlin Cathedral and look up at the dome, you will see in gold lettering words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Thine is the Kingdom”. I have sat there and thought of the generations of people – from the Second Reich through Weimar and the Nazis, through the GDR and the now-reunited Germany – and wondered what Christian worshippers thought that meant. And how could they so easily confuse the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of the Jesus we read about in the gospels? Whose Reich/Kingdom do we really serve?

The question goes to the heart of how human beings make sense of themselves and the world – and whether, when the heat is on, the foundation of our ethical frameworks is as sound as we like to think it is. Humility, generosity, loving your neighbour, protecting the weak – or self-preservation at all costs?

Every generation faces the same question. So does every nation.


* I originally wrote two scripts for this. The first I set in Weimar where you can stand by the statue of Herder and look to the hills beyond … and Buchenwald concentration camp. I decided this was not the right introduction, so went to Vienna instead. However, I didn’t change the statue from Herder to Lessing. Only one person pointed this out. It doesn’t change the point, but the error should be noted.

This morning I was doing the first of two Confirmation Services today and preached about Paul’s story (and our own distinctive story) from Galatians 1. Considering Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but beginning with my own story of coming to faith as a child in Liverpool, I was trying to encourage the congregation to consider how they have been met by God in a way that brought life in the midst of death. Every person’s story is unique and God never seems to replicate his encounters in ways that make them susceptible to engineering or formulaic repetition. (Which is why I am sceptical of the many ‘health and wealth’ preachers who advertise themselves around London…)

Driving home afterwards, I was thinking about how the media narrative that lazily trots out unchecked ‘church in decline’ or ’emptying pews’ language should be embarrassed by the reality that lots of people are becoming Christians and affirming their commitment publicly. Most confirmations I do are for adults these days and candidates often have remarkable stories to tell of how they have come to this point. 18 this morning and a load more this evening. Week in, week out, I find myself baptising and confirming adults and young people.

What interests me today, however, is the uniqueness of their stories and a particular story I read a couple of days ago. Joanna Robertson wrote for the BBC’s From our own Correspondent an article entitled ‘Setting the memory of Holocaust victims in stone’. Basically, in Berlin brass cobblestones are appearing in the pavement outside buildings and houses in the city. These brass stones bear the names of Jews who lived in these places before being removed and sent to their deaths in Hitler’s Final Solution.

In fact, this isn’t new. I walked round Hamburg a couple of years ago with German friends and these stones appeared everywhere we walked. It struck me then that this is almost more powerful than simply putting up hundreds of names together on a single memorial in a town centre. It becomes impossible to take in the enormity of the crime and the loss when hundreds or thousands of names are put together in a single place. The names blend in and become anonymous to those who had no other connection with them.

But, when you walk down city streets and every step you take seems to place your foot against yet another brass Stolperstein (literally, stumbling block) bearing the name, dates of birth/death of a dead Jew… and the nature of their fate (‘murdered’, ‘suicide’, ‘killed while trying to escape’, etc.), it brings it powerfully home that each individual counted – that each one had a name, a story to tell, a home from which they were ripped out, a family that was destroyed like vermin. Their stories might be largely forgotten now; but they themselves cannot be forgotten because these stumbling blocks cannot be ignored.

This need to re-member the story and to dignify the individuals involved is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian fundamental conviction that human beings have infinite worth – not because other people happen to say they do, but because they are ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). According to this conviction, every human being is valuable, and Christian ethics start at that point. Therefore, every story of every person deserves dignity.

Just before laying hands on a candidate and confirming him/her, I look them in the eyes while I say the set words:

[Name], God has called you by name and made you his own.

Each one needs to hear that clearly. And behind it lie the stories of  people in the Gospels whose experience of religion told them they were worth little or nothing (ritually unclean women, for example)… until they met Jesus and he restored to them their value – sometimes even giving them a new name.

A good example is in Luke 13: 10-17 where Jesus takes an excluded woman and heals her. However, the real point of the story is twofold: (a) the religious keenies miss the point (a woman got healed) and diss Jesus for having done it on the wrong day (the Sabbath); (b) he publicly refers to the woman as ‘this daughter of Abraham’, immediately and unequivocally restoring to her her place in society, her dignity as a human being and her identity as part of the community of God’s people.

I have always thought of ‘stumbling blocks’ as a rather annoying problem. Perhaps they have a positive purpose in making us stop, read the names, think about our fundamental anthropological-theological assumptions, root our human ethics and consider how easily we dehumanise those with whom we disagree or who we would prefer to stay outside our preferred group of the self-defined ‘righteous’.

If you go to Hamburg or Berlin, you can’t avoid them.

It is impossible to visit the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and not be moved, horrified, ashamed. It is one of those places where you feel it is an intrusion to talk, breaking the silence which can be the only real response to genocide.

I have visited concentration camps and studied the literature. I have spoken to all sorts of Germans who responded in diverse ways to Nazi totalitarianism. I have read deeply and thought long about the Holocaust. But, when you walk into Yad Vashem a good deal of the rationalising has to be left behind in order to be impacted afresh by the almost inconceivable inhumanity of systematic cruelty.

The most moving memorial (to my mind, at least) is that dedicated to the Warsaw uprising. On the left is a bronze relief of the 19 year old and others who led the armed uprising within the ghetto – resisting the crimes of the Nazis with all the power and arms they could muster. On the right there is another bronze relief of Jews being led to slaughter, accompanied by German guards who have been given no faces. These two reliefs display two different responses to the Nazi evil: resistance or acceptance of their fate.

After the War, many survivors struggled with this. Which was the right response? And was one wrong for choosing the other option? Should the Jews have simply succumbed to the power of military abuse; or should they have fought against it? The answer offered here is that there is no answer: there is simply the fact that people responded differently.

The more worrying aspect is the refusal of the artist to give the German sentries faces. Apparently, he felt that we couldn’t humanise such monsters. The last time I visited Yad Vashem I asked our academic guide if this was wise – that if we simply dismiss such people as ‘monsters’, we don’t have to deal with the human capacity (in all of us?) to collude in such monstrosities. It is only when we give the ‘monster’ a face that we can begin to understand and respond to what they have done. Only then can we begin to face the common human problems of cruelty and violence.

However, as indicated by the above, the brain does have to be engaged at Yad Vashem. Sir Jonathan Sacks has spoken of the dangers of ‘memory becoming history’ – when the ‘story’ becomes a commodity useful for justifying other ends, easily disconnected from reality and turned into an ideological weapon. Miroslav Volf has written eloquently about the ways in which ‘memory’ is turned into a justification for violence and the exercise of power.

And this is the struggle that goes on at a place like Yad Vashem: how does the story of the Holocaust relate to how states behave now?

As you enter there is a quotation by Kurt Tucholsky:

A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates.

I saw this a couple of days ago – painted onto the wall that imprisons Bethlehem. To whom does it apply? Just Nazi Germany – or Israel and other states that oppress other people? Or does the incalculable suffering of the Jews in Europe excuse all subsequent abuses by Israel? This is a tough question that inflames passions, but goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alongside all this, Yad Vashem celebrates the people who resisted the dehumanising violence of the Nazis. It points out that two-thirds of those who planned the Final Solution had university degrees and of them half had doctorates in philosophy, law, politics and economics. Yet it also quotes the German pastor who said:

We don’t know any Jews; we know only human beings.

We see recorded the humanity of a priest in Mlyny who – and it must have seemed like a futile and miniscule gesture at the time – “instructed the village undertaker to write on a note the numbers that were tattooed on the arms of the murdered inmates he buried”. It is this that brings us back to the greatness of Yad Vashem: this place records the names of all those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, remembering their names and ensuring that although their lives ended in anonymity they will never be forgotten. The fact that they lived will be recalled and honoured.

Primo Levi wrote:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man… we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us anymore: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name.

Even where, as in Mlyny, the name is now a number, Levi was to be proved wrong. Yad Vashem insists that the memory of these people will be honoured – whether they resisted or succumbed. The question is now: how does the power of this act in Yad Vashem affect not just our view of the past, but our behaviour in the present and our potential for the future? Or are we simply condemned to repeat history because although we remember, we do not learn – and we see the cruelty in the faceless others and fail to look in the mirror?

There is a cattle truck standing on the end of rails that hang over the precipice outside the museum. On the wall in front of it is inscribed a poem found written in pencil inside the sealed railway car. It reads:

Here in this carload / I am Eve / with Abel my son. / If you see my other son / Cain son of man / tell him

What are we to tell him?