Some thoughts on a wee German WWII memorial

Peterskirche, Leipzig

In Leipzig, I finished work at 3:00 my final day. I always hope to finish early – it means more sightseeing. So off I trundled to visit Mendelssohn’s house. Along the way, I took a bit of an indirect route out of curiosity as well as my habit of chasing steeples. Besides leading me to a fruit stand where, for 2.50, I purchased a wee becher (tub) of strawberries, I found a Gothic revival Lutheran church, Peterskirche.

Like churches the world over, this had a small memorial to the young men who died in the two world wars. It was this memorial that drew me in, I wanted to see what it was. From my original vantage point, all I could tell was that it was Christ holding a limp man. My initial thought was that it was Christ holding one of his executioners – that the forgiveness of God stretches so far that it includes even God’s slayers. But it was not. It was Christ holding a German soldier – from the style of helmet, WWII, not WWI. The young soldier was bare-chested, and his lower half wrapped in a shroud. Beneath him was the simple inscription:

1914-1918
1939-1945

And there it was. While I disagree with both Kaiser Wilhelm’s and Adolf Hitler’s expansionist dreams on the continent of Europe – and thus understand why we went to war against their governments – this serves as a striking reminder of the power of those wars and the fragility of our human lives. Young men from that parish went out and never returned. Thousands of young German souls were slain on the battlefields of Europe, just as thousands of Canadians and Britons were likewise slain.

Some people think such memorials are inappropriate in/at churches – not just in German ones, but in Canadian and British ones too. They would remove that simple, worldless memorial as well as the lists of the fallen at the monument beside Little Trinity Anglican Church in Toronto. They say that the church has nothing to do with war, that we are called to peacemakers, to wage love by the power of Christ.

And this is why we need the memorials. Not to take sides. To remember those young persons who have died and sacrificed themselves, believing in something bigger and better, even if it was smaller and worse in reality. People who died doing what they believed was their duty as good citizens. People who died defending their homeland from attack.

My thoughts on the memorial at Peterskirche do not end there.

I wish they could.

But someone has defaced Peterskirche’s monument to the war-slain. Scrawled across the bare, white chest of the soldier held in the arms of Christ the Saviour are the words, ‘NO NAZIS.’

Somewhere in Germany, I think there may be Neo-Nazis. Most of the evidence I have seen, however, has been of anti-fascists in graffiti, pamphlets, rallies, and the like. And here we see the problem with our misrepresentation of WWII and the overuse of the word Nazi.

The problem came to my attention in the May issue of History Today magazine, in a wee article by Richard Overy entitled ‘Goodbye to the “Nazi’s”’. In this article, Overy points out that our laziness for describing Germany and German policies from 1933-45 has led to sloppiness in our understanding of the nation in those years. Everything, as we tend to view it, was ‘Nazi’ – Nazi soldiers, Nazi police, Nazi this, Nazi that. But everything, as he discusses, was not Nazi. Certainly not most people.

The German army that fought in WWII was certainly working for a government that had the National Socialist German Workers Party in power. But the soldiers, the young men in those dreadful situations, were not all Nazis per se. They were Germans, fighting in the German army against Germany’s enemies. Now, our Allied forces were certainly fighting Germans in the German army because of Hitler and the Nazi government in power. But that still does not make the young people being slain in the fields of Europe, from France to Russia, from Italy to Norway, Nazis.

Once we make this intellectual shift, all of a sudden WWII is a lot messier, and all of a sudden vilification is a lot harder. Sure, there were Nazis – both members of the political party (who were few) and sympathisers (who were many). And there were certainly people who were driven to do evil they would not otherwise have considered as a result of their relationship to the Nazi Party.

But that young man, being consoled by Christ, possibly being taken up to glory, memorialised at Peterskirche – is he a Nazi? Is he not, rather, a brother, a son, a husband, a father, a friend, the guy next door, a student, a factory worker, a football player – is he not, that is, the young war-slain? And, regardless of his government’s policies, is not his death a sorrow to his siblings, his parents, his wife, his children, his friends, his neighbours, his classmates, his co-workers, his teammates – to all the people in whose lives he left a hole when slain in the battlefields of a war he did not choose? For few people choose war.

When seen in this light, while just war theory may say, ‘Fighting Hitler and keeping him from overrunning Europe was the right thing to do,’ WWII was still a bloody conflict, a terrible time. And many young men lost their lives who were simply Germans, not Nazis.

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One thought on “Some thoughts on a wee German WWII memorial

  1. Thanks for the open-minded post, Matthew. It may also provide some context that it was quite normal for educated young men to be trained as officers – they did not join out of special feelings of patriotism or militarism, but because it was a good job with excellent benefits and very respectable. You may also be interested in the following numbers: in 1939, Germany’s population was over 80 million, with 5.3 million being members of the Nazi Party. The peak numbers were in 1945 with 8 million members. The key thing here may be the active membership of about a million people which included nearly all the holders of senior positions in the national goverment (borrowed this summary by author Ellen Marie Wiseman). . How many people in my own country -actively- support or even sympathize with the actions of my government? How many people -actively- oppose them? People try to live their lives, they try not to lose their jobs, to keep their kids out of trouble, they live in fear of losing what little they have. We’d all like to think we’d be incredibly brave under those circumstances, but it’s proven every single day that we’re not. I am very glad that we are gaining enough distance to see the messy realities of that time, that we can stop pretending that the battlefield is made up of White Knights and Black Hats

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