St Martin and Remembrance Day

I always think that it is a notable fact that the famous saint whose feast falls on Remembrance Day is not Demetrius or Theodore or George or Louis or any of the other soldier saints, but a saint who gave up soldiering for the monastic life.

St Martin of Tours was a soldier in the service of the Caesar Julian (future emperor called “the Apostate”) when, at Tours, he abandoned his military career because he felt that soldiering was incompatible with his Christian calling. When you consider the atrocities the Romans performed back then, including Julian on campaign against the Alemanni about a year after Martin’s departure, it is not unlikely that military service in the Later Roman Empire was not an easy thing for the Christian conscience, even if firmly convinced of just war theory (which was in its infancy in St Martin’s day, anyway).

Anyway, in the eleventh month on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour, we remember the signing of the armistice that ended the calamitous First World War — at the time, thought to be the war to end all wars. It was not, so we also remember the horrors of the Second World War.

We do not remember these conflicts to glorify war or to propagandise current conflicts. We remember them because, sadly, the British and Commonwealth war machine was a bloody necessity to protect freedom, not only for ourselves but elsewhere as well. Young men fought and died believing that to do so was necessary to protect their families, friends, and freedoms.

But what World War I showed us was just how horrible war can be. The follies of generals, the unpleasantness of trenches, the killing ability of mechanised warfare, the use of airplanes, the ability to photograph it all — and the endless dragging battles. The Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien and Hitler fought on opposite sides and where the future philologist lost good friends, lasted four and a half months. World War I was a descent into Hell.

And then World War II showed us what total war really looks like, as Allied Forces liberated nations stripped of their Jewish populations and then literally could not believe the stories of death camps until they saw them with their own eyes.

St Martin is a fitting saint as we remember the men and women who sacrificed so much so that we could live free from tyranny and oppression. War is an inglorious thing, even when necessary. We, like St Martin, like my grandfathers who did their part as well, are called to by the Prince of Peace to wage love and to die to ourselves, to die for our friends, to die for the only true King, Jesus Christ.

St Martin left the army and became a hermit, although his life by Sulpicius Severus has many mentions of “brothers”. This higher calling, this rejection of all worldly glory and worldly values, led him to seek a life of pure prayer and holiness, fighting for the salvation of souls amongst the pagans of Gaul, fighting the demons, and fighting his own temptations.

The last great war is always being waged — in the name of a poem from soon after St Martin’s death, the Battle for the Soul.

So today, honour the memory of those who fought and died. Read some war stories and war poems. And then thank God for His blessings, joining St Martin in the battle for the human soul.

St Martin’s Day (Lest We Forget)

Today is Remembrance Day. The eleventh day of the eleventh month. And at the eleventh hour, a moment of silence will be taken to remember the war dead, especially of the First World War and the Second World War. It is an event and moment forged in the aftermath of a bloody, destructive conflict that ran 1914-1918 and that many considered the war to end all wars. I wear a poppy to remember the dead, as well as the survivors, and to be thankful that I grew up in a Canada and live in a Europe free of war. May God keep it thus.

It is also the Feast of St Martin of Tours (316/36-397). St Martin is the western, Gallic, proto-monk. One of the first of his kind in the Latin West. He was not always a monk.

He started a soldier.

St Martin, according to his hagiographer Sulpicius Severus, was converted while on campaign in Gaul, serving under Julian Caesar. He felt that he could no longer maintain his career as a soldier and hold up his Christian profession because of the shedding of blood, the violence, the killing of humans.

So St Martin left the army and ended up become a monk, and later bishop.

I am not arguing for pacifism here. But war is terrible, even when fought for just reasons. (And when you read about some of the things the Romans did against the Alemanni in the fourth century, you question the justice of it all.) It is a hard, harsh reality.

It is thus fitting that on this day, when we remember the 17 million dead in WWI, that we also remember St Martin.

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.