This talk was given on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, 11th November, 2018 at The Abbey Church, Victoria BC, Canada. The podcast can be found here.
I found it really really difficult to get this talk together. You see, I am speaking from a place I would rather not be in- as a child of the enemy- and leading up to this day, the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 there have been plenty of reminders. And I am aware that in choosing to speak from a point of view that may not fit with how others are remembering this day, I have made myself vulnerable.
Yet I was given reason to be brave about this talk by watching a short film about reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral. In it is an idea by Stanley Hauerwas which describes reconciliation as being “…when our enemy tells us our story in such a way that we are able to say “Yes, that is my story.””
I realised two things when I heard that: that somehow, despite the doubt and fear I often feel, my instinct to make the art I do, and to speak, is that I am doing a work of reconciliation, a work of peacemaking, to which we as children of God are called. I also realised that I had a duty to speak because how can anyone reflect back the story of the enemy if they do not hear it, and how will they hear it if the enemy doesn’t tell it? So I am here, as a daughter of the enemy telling you my story.
As a daughter whose dad fought on the German side of the war, Remembrance Day has it’s own heartache. It’s not my dad who is remembered at the Cenotaph, it is not him for whom the trumpet sounds, or for whom the bells toll. It was his country that everyone was fighting against, an enemy that to this day through movies and memes, popular novels and documentaries is described as evil.
Most of the people I live and have lived amongst have no reason to be personally concerned by presentations of the world wars, and so many wear poppies with pride, safely knowing their parents and grandparents, and now even great grandparents fought on the “right” side, not the “wrong” side of history. And yet on Remembrance Day, my heart also aches, and it is my eyes too that hold tears, because I know what my dad went through in the war.
Yet each Remembrance Day I also think of the Allies and am so grateful. I think of the Canadians who liberated Holland where my mother and her people suffered under the Nazis; I think of the Australians whose stories I heard all my growing up years; I think of the Brits and the Americans whose stories I am so familiar with; I think of all who suffered in the Wars- I think of everyone. I remember everyone. I don’t get to play favourites. But I am also in a very privileged position. You see I have been spared the mistake of looking at history and at war from a single story.
Some of us may be familiar with what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
We cannot learn from history if only one story is told. History is not one sided, it is not even two sided- it is multifaceted and complex and to allow only a simplified version of it to become our default narrative it is not only incomplete, it is actually not true.
As we head into the future and leave the twentieth century further behind, we need to be careful how we remember its world wars. What we need for the future is that smaller stories are told, stories that might not have the Hollywood machine behind them, that open up the dominant narrative so it might breath and expand and include all who have suffered in war.
Why does this matter? It matters because if we claim to be followers of Jesus, it is the only way in which we are able to be as perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. In Matthew 5: 38-48 Jesus gives us a description of God’s love for everyone, for the good and evil, and that everyone needs to included in an understanding of God’s love for the world. Shockingly, what Jesus is telling us is that we do not prove we are God’s by being on the side of good fighting evil; we prove our right to be children of God by loving our enemies.
In its very essence war negates that universal love. In order to wage war each side portrays the other as evil, and itself as good. War in its essence is a failure- a tragic abandonment of love. As Jimmy Carter points out, war although sometimes a necessity is always an evil; we should never remember it as a victory.
It could be that in times of war we may not have the luxury of loving our enemies ( even though the Geneva convention was an attempt at reconciling the evil of war with standards of respect for each other’s humanity) but in times of peace it is important that we do. At the end of war, it is important that we restore to the enemy their humanity. But it is my belief that it is not only the story of the soldier we need to hear in order to do that, we need to hear the stories of all who suffer in times of war.
My own work brings forth two smaller stories from war time Germany. My solo show last year looked at the effect of the Allied Bombing campaign over Germany on mothers and children, and the work I presented at the exhibition, History as Personal Memory looks at the story of resistance in Germany against the Nazis.
You see, there were not only Nazis and their fans living and dying in Germany. If anything, the 70,000 children who died by bombing and the 77,000 Germans who lost their lives resisting the Nazis, need to be remembered as much as we remember those who lost their lives in the military campaign.
Talking about the bombing campaign is particularly difficult but it is a perfect example of the challenge it is to remember war rightly. How can we argue that the Allies needed to defeat Hitler by any means necessary, and yet, as with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need to at least remember that those who lost their lives were children and mothers and the sick and the elderly, and that we cannot go into the future thinking aerial bombing is an acceptable option. Yet we dismiss these children as simply collateral and remember only those who flew the missions. Children lost their lives for the sake of defeating Hitler, and ought they not to be remembered?
But if all we have as a model of remembrance is based on victory and soldiers’ stories, where is there room for weeping over the lives of children?
Germany does not remember war on Armistice Day. One of the reasons is that the Nazis turned their national day of remembrance into a national day for remembering heroes. Instead Germany has a national day of mourning- the Volks Trauertag. On that day the second Sunday of the liturgical year,
Those who lost their lives fighting in war are remembered.
Civilians who lost their lives in war are remembered.
And those who suffered and lost their lives under an oppressive government are remembered.
Germany was not only defeated, it has faced too much horror to sweep under a simplified narrative, and so Germans have found a way to remember war through mourning. Their Remembrance is based on grief, not victory. And perhaps that may be a gift to all of us, if we consider that remembering war only from the victor’s point of view has not helped America from coming far too close to what it is proud of defeating in WW2.
For me, that is the way remembrance really ought to be- if remembrance is only about victory it perpetuates enmity into the future. It is heartbreaking knowing how much Germany has done to repent of war and the Holocaust and to see the way Hollywood still portrays Germans in so many of its movies.
If Remembrance is not an act of reconciliation, an act of regret, an act of peace, of healing, it continues to be an act of enmity.
There was an artist who made her life work a protest against war. Her name is Kathe Kollwitz and it is her art that we have looked at while I was talking. These prints and drawings are her response to what she called those “unspeakably difficult years” of World War I and its aftermath, and focuses on the sorrows of those left behind—parents, mothers, widows, and children. By eliminating references to a specific time or place, Kollwitz wanted her work to be of relevance to all mothers and children who have suffered in war.
I have looked at Kollwitz’s work often and then one day it dawned on me. The children she portrays in her art are not only the children of the enemy- they ARE the enemy. These little children, these ones which Kollwitz bore witness to, are the generation that ended up fighting for Germany in WW2.
To love the enemy is to hear their story. And the story we all have in common on any side of conflict is the story of children.
It is children who grow up to risk their lives in their fathers’ wars; it is little children who are bombed, it is children who starve. And it is children who suffer even though they have nothing to do with the decisions, greed and power of war.
What would happen to our remembrance of war if it featured memorials not of soldiers brandishing their bayonets at a long disappeared enemy, but children gazing down upon us? Would it change the way we thought about war? That is the question I was asking myself when I made these drawings which accompany me today.
Yet not only do we need to remember our children, we adults need to remember each other as little children- that we ARE little children- so we might live in peace. We need to remember that for God, none of us are enemies- we have already been reconciled. We need to remember that we are simply beloved, longed for children that God wants to bring home.
If you would like to view the small film from Conventry Cathedral I mention in my talk, you can find it here.