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United in grief for lives given and taken

11 November 2016

Paul Oestreicher reflects on penitence, national pride, and peace-making

After 100 years: a drawing of the trenches given to Lieutenant Oestreicher by a comrade

After 100 years: a drawing of the trenches given to Lieutenant Oestreicher by a comrade

I COULD not be writing of the pity of war, had not my father survived the gruelling, seemingly endless months of the merciless Battle of the Somme, a century ago. When I was 25 and he 60 years old, he took me across those battlefields on a sunny day, through cornflowers and poppies.

It felt as if the golden rays of the sun were caressing the earth that had been drenched in blood 40 years before. We walked from graveyard to graveyard, where men with a name that could still be deciphered were buried in orderly, endless, and well-tended rows.

War-graves commissions had done their work with respectful care. The inscriptions differed only in their language: French, German, English. Lives given for, lives taken by, “Patrie”, “Vaterland”, “King and Country”: the best part of a generation, willing and not-so-willing victims, united in death.

And yet, walking across those fields that were witnesses to mindless nationalism did not, strangely, leave me in despair, but only with deep sadness for the grief of those who had loved each of the countless sons and lovers, fathers and brothers, whose memory was slowly fading. In the bright sunshine, nature seemed to have overcome death. But the clouds were already gathering over Europe.


THIS had been “the war to end all wars”. It was not. The vengeful Treaty of Versailles, which ended it, had sown the seed for an even more criminal catastrophe. My father, at 19, had gone straight from school in 1914 to volunteer with patriotic fervour, like so many on both sides.

“That war”, he often said, “left no one unchanged. You either lost your faith, or found it.” It prepared the ground in my father, born a secular Jew, for a deep commitment to Jesus. Several more years passed, before he, by then a young country doctor driving through the snow after visiting a sick baby, heard a voice saying: “Go, and be baptised.”

From Private to Lieutenant in the 11th Bavarian Artillery — by the end of the war, my father was in a field hospital in Alsace, just well enough to run for his life back to Germany, to escape being taken prisoner. Defeat was bitter, and his pride in the Fatherland was still intact, but not for very long. In 1918, he fled from the French. In 1938, born of Jewish parents, he fled from the Germans.

Hitler’s reign had changed everything. His mother, to whom he had written dutifully, if only a few lines, every single day of the war, did not survive the Holocaust. Those letters have now found their way to the new Bundeswehr Museum of Military History, in Dresden, an institution that glorifies not war, but peace.

The Great War had been pure tragedy. As the historians tell us, it was a war into which the European powers stumbled in their quest for supremacy. The great massacre had been senseless, and yet both sides, with their chaplains, had been made to believe that the call to arms was not just service to their nation, but a sacrifice to God.


I STILL have my father’s belt-buckle, inscribed with the words “Gott mit Uns”, “God with us.” The British Tommies did not need that spelled out: they knew which side God was on. Both sides had recruited the same God to their crusade. The psalmist’s words “His mercy endureth for ever” might just cover even this unconscious blasphemy. On both sides, the young men’s duty was to kill, and, if need be, to die. Such is the nature of war.

Commemoration of the dead after two victorious wars is still, in Britain, imbued with deeply rooted nationalism. That is not surprising. The red poppy is a symbol not just of grief, but of national pride; not to wear it has, in public life, become almost impossible. Patriotism demands no less.

Its charitable purpose, to assist all war veterans, could not be better. I will give to that, gladly; but wear it, no. Its nationalist overtones fail to take account of our common humanity, and our shared vulnerability. Our ceremonies still fail to challenge our national pride.

How telling was Margaret Thatcher’s anger when, after the Falklands War, Archbishop Runcie prayed in St Paul’s for the Argentinian dead as well as our own. Had he not been prepared to do so, Cardinal Hume had threatened to stay away. The fact that humanity is above all nations should be obvious in our national consciousness, and yet is far from it. Surely Brexit’s success is warning enough.


IN GERMANY, after two lost wars, the mood is very different: it is one of penitence rather than pride. At the central act of worship in Berlin on the National Day of Grief three years ago, its Remembrance Sunday, I, an Anglican pacifist with a German-Jewish background, was invited to preach by the German War Graves Commission. Yes, the German top brass were there at the state ceremony, military band and all, with the President speaking only of the duty to be peacemakers. Would the British Legion ever have invited anyone like me?

My once-chauvinist, right-wing German nationalist father had made the long journey before he died to becoming a liberal Quaker, who none the less continued to love dearly the Fatherland that had betrayed and rejected him.

Patriotism takes many forms. In his wallet, close to his heart, he always carried the prayer attributed to St Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”


Canon Paul Oestreicher is Emeritus Director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral.

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