234 8.11.15 'Dresden' sermon 2
Remembrance Sunday

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 in 2014.

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 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 history.

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 here.

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.

And finally….

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: some didn't.

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.

And now…….