|ISSUE 52 AUTUMN 2006
The Neue Wache, older still, was originally built as a guardhouse, and commemorated the dead of the Napoleonic wars. In 1931, however, it was converted into a memorial for the dead of WW1 – and would later be damaged by the bombing during WW2. In 1960 it was rebuilt as the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism; on the 20th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in 1969 an eternal flame was set at its centre, and an unknown German soldier and a concentration camp victim were buried there. Its latest transformation came in 1993: it is now the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany. Protesters at the official opening objected to both its purpose and its location. The unified Federal Republic was the fourth consecutive regime to use the same building as a national memorial, and the site was burdened with too much difficult history. At its centre today you can see an enlarged version of the sculpture ‘Mother with her Dead Son’ by the pacifist artist Käthe Kollwitz. (Kollwitz’s own son had been killed in WW1.) The sculpture is placed directly under an opening in the roof and so exposed to the rain and snow: a touching symbol of the suffering of civilians during WW2.
In Britain recently a small flurry of irritation drifted along the airwaves when some of us dared to question the appropriateness of a new plaque, ‘Dedicated to the men and women of Bomber Command’, in Lincoln Cathedral. Reactive comments in radio interviews country-wide, in e-mails to the PPU and on the BBC web-board were often intemperate or of the ‘…if they hadn’t died for you, you’d be speaking German now’ kind.
The plaque commemorates the more than 55,000 members of Bomber Command who – in a contentious phrase – ‘gave their lives in defence of our liberty.’ But to object to this statement is regarded by many as disgraceful, or at the very least indelicate. As Remembrance Day approaches, we are reminded once again of the ‘glorious dead’ who died to make us free: any criticism of that concept is – well, pick your own term of abuse.
Throughout the war the PPU and others campaigned vigorously against the bombing of German cities. But the British administration was failing to affect the course of events in Europe, and many civilians at home were suffering the effects of the Blitz. ‘Hitting back’, not ‘defence of liberty,’ became a key component in the effort to maintain morale. During much of the war bombers often couldn’t locate (let alone hit) military targets: cities were easier to find and precision unnecessary. The Ministry of Information asserted persuasively that that the RAF was doing a brilliant job. In fact, in the first years of war, more British bomber crews were killed than Germans. But close to the war’s end, and when it was clear that Germany faced defeat, Bomber Command sent a firestorm raging through Dresden, incinerating thousands of civilians. Spin is not a new phenomenon, and truth, that ‘first casualty of war’, is too often painfully absent from war commemorations.
Here is one of the few thoughtful e-mails criticising our objections to the Lincoln Cathedral plaque: ‘I have completed several tours in the Middle East, conducting operations that most of my colleagues and I strongly oppose. However I joined the armed forces so that I might defend my country and if the powers that be decide that what we are doing is for the best, I am not in a position to question it. I am no more responsible for what is going in Iraq than the young men of Bomber Command were responsible for the tactics that led to the area bombing of Germany.’
The writer adds: ‘If any memorial should be campaigned against, it should be that of Bomber Harris, since it was he who was realistically responsible for the campaign.’ Blaming a higher authority for one’s actions was a defence demolished at the Nuremberg Tribunals. But the Tribunals also disregarded international law against the bombing of civilians: it would be unseemly, of course, to try Harris and Churchill for war crimes side by side with Goering.
Does a modest plaque in Lincoln Cathedral matter much? Perhaps not. It’s just one of hundreds of war memorials in cathedrals and churches up and down the country. While Christians and Muslims debate the relation of religion and bloodshed, Christians at least might take a closer look at some of the violent history recorded on some of the walls of their places of worship.
Dresden is now a prosperous city again, its cathedral rebuilt. Corpses of soldiers, however, are still turned up by ploughing across what were once major battlefields in Germany, and ‘the war’ – and its memorials - remain a troublesome and complex issue in that reunified country. In Britain only the odd German bomb turns up occasionally in some urban building site or other, and commemoration of war provides for many a comforting sense of continuity, a link with something perceived, alas, as ‘good’. Did you know that London’s most recent warmemorial is dedicated to the animals used by the military and which were killed in war? It cost £1.5 million.