234 8.11.15 'Dresden' sermon 2
May the words of my lips
Just over a year ago, I attended a service focussing on peace and reconciliation
at the Frauenkirche in Dresden. You probably know that 3 months before
the end of the war, in February 1945, Allied bombing destroyed the beautiful
and stunning 18th century centre of Dresden (and much else besides) in
an attempt to shorten the war.
Historians will argue for ever about the rights and wrongs of this, and
whether it did actually shorten the war. That's not what I want to talk
about, because it's not what was talked about by the Germans I met. We
are of course a couple of generations on from the war, and the Germans
have gone through several stages since then, so I'm reporting what I found
First and foremost, there is no bitterness. The wonderful baroque centre
of Dresden has been rebuilt, stone by stone. With archetypal thoroughness,
the Germans went through the rubble of the Frauenkirche like an archaeological
dig, carefully marking, identifying and labelling each stone. As far as
possible, they re-used the stones in exactly the same positions as they
had originally occupied. The expense is unimaginable, and it has to be
said that whilst a large part of the cost came from West Germany, other
major contributions came from all over the world. The completion of that
work, in 2005 marked the completion of all the rebuilding of central Dresden.
Other work, in modern styles, continues as it does in any other city.
I'm sure we all know that being there is so much more forceful than any
words or pictures can describe, so I can only attempt to describe my emotions.
As I said, first and foremost, there is no bitterness. The present generation
of Germans is ready to get on with life in a spirit of reconciliation.
They do not hide the past. At the entrance to the War Memorial chapel
in the Hofkirche, the RC Cathedral, there are two plaques, one on each
side. Our tour guide, herself Dresden born and bred, offered a translation
which is telling in itself. Her translation is much more direct than any
literal translation. What she said was, 'on one side, it says "We
started the war in 1933" [that was the year Hitler came to power],
and on the other "the war came to us in 1945."
And another plaque, on the outside of the Kreuzkirche, the Lutheran Church
of the Holy Cross, says:
IN SHAME AND SORROW
CHRISTIANS REMEMBER THE JEWISH CITIZENS OF THIS CITY.
IN 1933 THERE WERE 4675 JEWS LIVING IN DRESDEN; IN 1945 THERE WERE 70.
WE REMAINED SILENT WHEN THEIR PLACES OF WORSHIP WERE BURNED, WHEN JEWS
WERE DEPRIVED OF THEIR RIGHTS, DRIVEN OUT AND MURDERED. WE FAILED TO
RECOGNISE IN THEM OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS.
WE ASK FOR FORGIVENESS AND PEACE.
In a perverse sort of way, it is perhaps Dresden's good fortune that
there was no money in what became East Germany after the war, so by the
time it became possible to rebuild, new ideas had developed. Coventry
and, I understand, Cologne were rebuilt comparatively quickly in a then
modern style. I'm sure their city fathers look now at Dresden with envy!
(And I believe that Warsaw also has shared Dresden's pattern of rebuilding.)
So you arrive in Dresden and stand there stunned and mesmerised by all
that has happened. What Canaletto called 'Florence on the Elbe' is there
again for all to see. Perhaps former East Germany is not yet on the major
tourist trail. All I can say is 'go there, while it is possible to see
it without a branch of Disneyland'.
I've probably already talked too long about Dresden, but actually that
was only the last two days of the trip. We were there on an organ crawl
- what a surprise! Even places that were not affected by the war were
allowed to decay during the days of the German Democratic Republic. There
was no money! Now so much has been restored and rebuilt to the highest
possible standards. Once again, perhaps they were fortunate in that the
'modernising' phases of the 50s, 60s and 70s passed them by. If all the
work that has been done is up to the standards of what has been done to
the organs we saw, it is of a very high standard indeed, and all strictly
historically accurate. The cost to West Germany beggars belief.
So we went to see and hear organs, nearly all of them in churches. And
of course we looked around the churches as well, and we found our various
proud guides very anxious to tell us all about the churches. (Sometimes
they had to be stopped, as we were running out of time and hadn't yet
heard the organ!)
The style of their village churches is different from ours: the Lutheran
theology runs through and through them. But one thing is in common: the
War Memorial. Every village church has its slab on the wall with the names
of the young men who went to the war and never came back. Just like ours.
And you can't help standing there and asking 'What was the point of it
all?' 'Why can't mankind settle its differences around the table?' Yes,
we know that in given circumstances and in a given situation, decisions
are made with the best of intentions. Very very few would go to war lightly.
But it happens. And it goes on happening. We must learn the lessons of
One more thing struck me as we went around in the coach. We were driving
along a little country road beside a small river. That's quite normal.
We do it every day. But somebody pointed out that the field on the other
side was in the Czech Republic.
How utterly insignificant and pointless and meaningless are these artificial
boundaries. Given that there is freedom of movement among these countries
(whatever other shortcomings we might lay at the door of the EU), people
can come and go across this 'boundary'; they can live on one side and
work on the other; they can have friends and family on either side.
We are all one. We are so very much like each other. Why do we find it
so hard to get on and live in peace with each other? It has been said
that it is because we are so like each other that we find it hard to get
on. Our own experience of Germans and Germany is of a welcoming friendship,
completely at odds with the war films which were so popular in my youth.
I pray that the friendship, in both directions, will continue to develop.
And a further observation. As I said, we were on an organ crawl, and
in the very territory where J S Bach spent almost all his life. The Thirty
Years' War had devastated the whole of Germany (which was not in those
days a single country, but a collection of assorted princedoms and electorates).
That war had ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. J S Bach was
born in 1685, so he lived through a period when much was being rebuilt,
a period when lives were being put back together again, a period of vigorous
activity and growth.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. We were there in 2006 and then again
last year. So we saw the place very much as JSB saw it, full of energy
and enthusiasm. Much has been done. There is much to do. There is quite
simply a very positive feeling about the place which we don't always find
There is quite a lesson there for us all. If we can somehow keep looking
ahead and put the past behind us, we will be the better for it. Old feuds
can so easily go on for ever, with the original disagreement long forgotten,
but the animosity remaining. And how fearfully difficult it is to take
the first step of reconciliation. But we must try!
The Frauenkirche in Dresden is linked with Coventry Cathedral in a ministry
of reconciliation. Anything we can do to further the aim of peace and
reconciliation, whether in the village here or further afield, must be
a good thing.
I spent the journey there and back reading the autobiography of Rabbi
Hugo Gryn, who some of you might remember for his contributions to Thought
for the Day 30 years ago. He was an Auschwitz survivor. (We passed the
sign to Auschwitz in the coach.) He finished up by arguing that there
can be out-and-out evil, so there can be a just war waged against it.
And there can be no question that we are seeing out-and-out evil in some
parts of the world now. In the paper last week there was a long interview
with Canon Andrew White, well-known as the 'Vicar of Baghdad'. He has
been instrumental many times over in negotiating behind the scenes to
get warring parties together. He will do anything and everything to put
peace in place of war, but even he finds that the extremists of ISIS are
non-negotiable and will have to be defeated by military means - and, he
says, that means boots on the ground.
Speaking as a coward, I'm very glad that I have never been called upon
to fight in a war (and I think I've got away with it now, at my age!).
Many who did fight and return do not speak about their experiences. We
can only be thankful for their sacrifice - and sacrifice it was, whether
of physical or mental health or just of years that might have been so
much better spent.
We speak now of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and try to offer help
to returning servicemen and women. Previous generations of returnees had
no such help and just had to struggle on as best they could. Some survived:
For the sake of the thousands who served, and whether they returned or
not, and in whatever state the returnees find themselves, we, you and
I, must seek peace and reconciliation wherever we have the opportunity.