A shared culture of remembrance
This heralded the end of the First World War. 10 million soldiers died a horrible death in the “primal catastrophe of the 20th century”, and a further 20 million were wounded and scarred for life both physically and mentally. The number of civilian dead was 6 million. Whole tracts of land were devastated – torn apart by shells, contaminated by poison gas. Names such as Verdun, Ypres, Tannenberg and the Somme are bywords for a hitherto unequalled mass slaughter.
The end of the First World War was for a long time marked by exclusively national remembrance ceremonies. In France and Belgium, 11 November is still a public holiday, and remembrance services are held in the UK on the second Sunday in November. In Germany, remembrance of the First World War has played a subordinate role; there is a national day of mourning on the second Sunday before the start of Advent, on which the fallen of both World Wars are remembered. But the shared remembrance of the victims of the First World War, and thinking about its causes and effects, is an essential aspect of the European integration process. As nationalist thinking is seeing a revival in Europe, a shared culture of remembrance is even more urgently needed.
One example of this kind of joint commemoration is the German-French Museum at Hartmannsweilerkopf, which was opened in November 2017 by the two countries’ presidents, Emmanuel Macron und Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The place where German and French soldiers fought bloody battles 100 years ago has been transformed into a joint place of remembrance and a symbol of German and French reconciliation.
Remembering the end of the First World War also gives cause for a critical appraisal of the role of the churches. The Swiss Evangelical Reformed theologian Karl Barth observed in 1914 after the outbreak of the war that “love of the fatherland, jingoism and the Christian faith” had become hopelessly entangled. Nationalism triumphed over faith in the churches of every country involved.
The COMECE bishops therefore gave an important signal with their joint visit to First World War memorial sites in Flanders on 24 October 2018. Reflection and prayer characterised this day of shared remembrance. The main celebrant of the Holy Mass in St. Martin’s cathedral in Ypres was Bishop Lode Aerts of Brügge. At the German soldiers’ cemetery in Langemark, the German bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck led joint prayers, while they were led at the Tyne Cot War Cemetery by Bishop Nicolas Hudson. A particularly moving close to the day came when the bishops took part in the daily memorial service at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, where over 50,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave are commemorated. The ceremony, first held in 1927, initially commemorated the fallen soldiers of the Commonwealth and Belgium, but now it is held in remembrance of all those who fell in Flanders, including former enemies.
Our thoughts should not be directed only to the past. In 1913, few in Europe could possibly envisage the events that unfolded on the continent between 1914 and 1918. How can we prevent something similar happening again? The European Union is a response to the mass killing and destruction of the First World War. But each generation needs to learn afresh to differentiate the idea of a nation state from the ideology of nationalism. Only a shared remembrance of the bloody past will ensure a shared future of reconciliation and peace.
Martin Maier SJ
Translated from the original text in German