'Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee: Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift'.
St Matthew, 5:23-24
When 1 was at school in the 1950s, I remember looking at a book that another boy had brought in about the horrors of the concentration camps in Germany. It was illustrated with photographs, and I remember looking at it with disbelief. It was something totally outside my knowledge, and I remember thinking: "Nobody I know could ever do anything like that. What a good thing the (bad) Germans were beaten by the (good) British." The war films and comics of the time, in which the Germans were invariably represented as square-headed monsters, did nothing to remove this impression. Since then I have made several conscious adjustments to my attitudes, but something of the national self-righteousness engendered by that book and those comics and films has remained lodged in some back corner of my mind.
This year I went on holiday to the Black Forest and met a German lady, Luzi, now about 75 years of age, who had been born in Upper Silesia, which at that time was in Germany. She had lived in a pastoral idyll, knowing nothing of the war, until she was fourteen years old, when a man ran up to her father's farm and cried 'We must all get out, now! The Soviets are coming.' She was forced to leave all her possessions and the farm where she had been born, and move to Kjel where, in the wreck of Germany after the war, she met a Coldstream Guardsman whom she later married. She has been back to Germany several times with her husband since, on holiday, but has never returned to Silesia. She said that in those early days she had thought of Hitler as a good person, because of a government scheme to buy shoes for poor German children who could not afford them. In any case, what could Luzi, as a fourteen-year-old girl, have done to influence the politics of the time?
Later on in the holiday we visited a Black Forest farmhouse, which had been in the ownership of the same family for many years. The German government had provided money for the restoration of the old property, provided that the present owners opened it to the public. The lady who showed us round was a member of the family: the first generation not to live in the farmhouse but in a new house nearby. In the course of the tour she was pointing out some ancient carvings in the woodwork. There were a number of six- and eight-pointed stars there, and she told us that these were fertility symbols, which were touched by the farmers to bring them good crops and by the young married women to bring them children. "Of course, nowadays," she said. "The six-pointed star is thought of as the sign of the Jews, but it was not always so. We also have remembered David, the great King, as a figure of power and might who would bring us luck and bless our crops." She looked apologetic then and added wistfully. "But I am afraid that some of us forgot that." That lady was not even born in Hitler's lifetime.
So, even after nearly seventy years have gone by, the scars of the last war still affect the German people, but are they deserved? What sin have the present generation of Germans in general, or either of these two ladies in particular, committed that their lives should be blighted for ever by concentration camps and, the persecution of the Jews by a madman who, in a time of deep economic and political trouble, promised the Germans a brighter future? How many of us have voted for a candidate who, whilst we have not agreed with their philosophy, promised better times for us personally? I remember a conversation with a friend, in which I was regretting the so-called 'landslide' in favour of Margaret Thatcher. My friend admitted that whilst he cordially disliked her, he had voted for her for just such reasons. The economic and political plight of Germany was, in any case, a direct result of the Treaty of Versailles, in which Britain played a large part. Lloyd George, far from being a magnanimous victor, said that he was going to "squeeze Germany until the pips squeak".
Politics can be a dirty game. Even Winston Churchill was recorded as saying, when someone questioned his alliance with Stalin, "If Hitler attacked Hell, I would seriously consider making an alliance with the Devil". Stalin, indeed, probably did as much, or more, in the way of unjust persecution and arbitrary killing than Hitler; however he did not get so much publicity. The British more or less invented concentration camps during the Boer War ('improving' on the first Cuban ones of 1895), and Hitler's Gauleiters were modelled on Oliver Cromwell's Major Generals (not surprisingly, Cromwell was one of Hitler's heroes and he had his life as bedside reading). The British wreaked far more havoc on Germany in revenge for Hitler's 'Baedeker raids' than the Germans wreaked on us at the height of the blitz. Our bombardment of Dresden, pouring high explosive down from the skies on innocent civilians until the heat was so great that a firestorm resulted and the resulting inferno was impossible to put out, is a national disgrace and shame that has always hidden behind the fact of Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and the rest. In 1939 we were told that we had gone to war because Hitler had invaded Poland; but we did nothing when Stalin bloodily invaded the same Poland and it was occupied by an alien ideology for over four decades.
It is pointless, of course, to pull examples from history to show how this or that nation has disgraced itself down the ages. We are of many races, but we are all part of mankind, and we are all capable of the depths of depravity, as well as the heights of saintliness. The Germans of the present day may if anything find a blessing in their past: they have had seared into their consciousness the depths to which the human soul can fall, and so they are potentially that much closer to repentance (and therefore forgiveness) than we are.
Many British people still suffer from a kind of 'institutional pride', considering ourselves in some way better than other nations. I freely admit that, although nearly sixty years of age, I had not been abroad until this year, and my first-hand knowledge of other nations is therefore somewhat limited. However I could not help noticing that many of the exterior walls of houses in the Black Forest are still graced with crucifixes and wayside shrines are scattered through the area. How many houses in England can boast a crucifix on the outside? Even worse, how many might display one but for the fear that it would be immediately vandalized? In Freiburg, the cathedral, instead of being segregated and set apart from 'real life' (as in Canterbury) is in the middle of the market place; so it is the easiest thing in the world to move from stalls of fresh vegetables to the peace of God. I know that when all the people of Europe are as friendly and polite as the folk of the Black Forest, when our houses are as beautifully decorated and blessed and our streets are as clean; we might have some excuse (I do not say justification) to compare our souls. But perhaps the effort to attain such outward cleanliness and devotion would awaken in us such an inward enlightenment that we would not want to.