It’s Remembrance Day. It’s a day — an hour of a day of a month — that I’ve honoured all my life, a life that until recently was located in Canada. This year, I’m in Germany. Munich, and to be exact, I’m sitting and writing in a cafe at Odeonsplatz, right beside the Feldherrnhalle. It’s a site that was intimately connected with the history of National Socialism, and was the Nazi’s spiritual centre. The people around me are mostly young — stylish, vibrant, and intellectual. The architecture is old and beautiful, but the atmosphere is modern and liberal. I never expected to be here… it’s a change in perspective that goes far deeper than scenery.
I woke up this morning wondering how to mark the day. Obviously there would be no poppies, and none of the military displays honouring the fallen dead that I’ve grown used to in Canada. I’ve never questioned too closely what it was that I was "remembering" on November 11th. I simply showed up out of respect for the dead, an unexamined giving of thanks for the "good guys" who gave their lives to defeat the "bad guys", so that the next generation could live in peace. Not too sophisticated, in theory nor in practise.
I’m told that Germany observes Volkstrauertag (Memorial Day) on the first Sunday in Advent. Unlike me, the German people have thought long and hard about what it is THEY are remembering. So much so, that there is a second national day of mourning each year — one to remember the victims of war and tyranny, and another to mark the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp:
"…more than a mere date, Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked by the active pursuit of history in Germany’s classrooms, lecture halls, and cities — as well as through school visits to former concentration camps." (reference)
There’s no pat distinction between "the good guys" and "the bad guys" here. Through bitter experience and hard-won wisdom, the German people understand that the capacity for doing evil — or at least, succumbing to it — lies within us all.
In the end, it all comes back to flowers. John McCrae (close to my heart not least because he was Laird’s grandmother’s cousin) recognized this when he wrote the heartbreaking poem, In Flander’s Fields. I put my coat on, took the subway downtown, and bought two roses from the little florist at the ancient church at Odeonsplatz. I walked through the Hofgarten to the grounds of the Bavarian State Chancellory, stopping first in front of a polished black granite cube — engraved with handwriting, and topped with hundreds of small stones placed there over time by passersby. I stood for a moment of silence in front of this memorial to The White Rose, and then placed my own white rose on top of it to join the stones. Then, as the church bells struck 11, I made my way to the "Unknown Bavarian Soldier’s" tomb. As I stood there quietly, the voice and face of the German tour guide who first brought me here back in April came to mind — his anger and contempt as he translated the inscriptions to the "glorious dead" of WWI, and the "victims" of WWII, and said,
"How is it that at the end of WWII, there were suddenly no Nazis? Everyone was suddenly a "victim"! No one would admit to having belonged to the party… my own father and grandfather! How is it that they could have joined in, and believed in, such a thing?"
I remember feeling compassion — for him — and for his father and grandfather, who lived in a frightening time when people’s souls were strangled by brutality and evil. Would I have done any better if I had lived during those times? Would he? We all like to think so, but the bitter truth is that we can’t know. I put a red rose on the tomb — not a poppy, but a symbol of love, nonetheless — and I sent up a fervent prayer for the world in which we live today, in which it’s getting awfully hard to tell who the "good guys" are anymore.
I think the inscription on the The Siegestor — the triumphal arch on Ludwigstrasse — says it all. Its inscription, which was changed when it was restored
after WW II, says "Dem Siege geweiht. Vom Krieg zerstört. Zum Frieden
Erected in victory. Destroyed by war.
An admonishment to