Today was Sunday, 9 November 2014 – a day of single historic significance for the world, but in particular for Europe – and for Germans. It is the anniversary of the start of World War One (WW1) in 1914, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but also of the Nazi Pogrom of Jews during the “Reichskristallnacht” of 1938. Today, I saw all of their significance through the lens of one single, Bavarian Sunday morning in my Alpine village. It was stunning, chilling – and utterly beautiful.
We got up just before 7 am. The air was clear and cold, but as the sun rose, a brilliant blue November sky opened up. The kids enjoyed some left-over cake from yesterday’s birthday party for breakfast whilst my wife and I sipped our tea; I reminded everyone of the date and that mass, though early, would be well-attended: the veterans’ association and other clubs in our small Bavarian village were coming to church as part of the commemorations today. Everyone sat chewing quietly for a minute under balloons still dangling from the lighting fixtures, and amid tired paper streamers clinging in lazy curls to chair backs and table legs.
Boom! We heard the first cannon fire as we walked down the steep path connecting the upper and lower parts of town. Smoke billowing over the trees; the simple Iron Cross on the roof of the small shrine invisible behind the reds and yellows of autumnal foliage. The shrine lay hidden from our view. It is almost like a tiny chapel, a house of memory and grief. From there the guns were being fired; invisible just like the faces and names of the boys and young men who have died or gone missing fighting in the murderous Twentieth Century. Victims they all are, victims to the godless, totalitarian ideologies that killed so many millions of people – among them, many of my ancestors: men, women, and children; some raped or tortured or killed by Communists, some brutalised by Nazis, others starved and left to suffer terribly in prisoner of war camps, others suffering endless trauma after lethal storms of bombardment rained down on their homes. Most were Catholics, some were Jews, all of them were Germans. They were on my mind as the cannons fired out once more as we made our way down the quiet street, lined by farms, guest houses and hotels. A few other locals were about, but not many people were up. I wondered if they heard the cannons firing in their sleep. I wondered what my ancestors would like tell my daughter and me at this very moment. What would they say?
Are these the same guns you used to fire, Dad?
Skipping with the unique and utterly careless exuberance of an innocent child on the day after a wonderful birthday party, one of my daughters squeezed my hand and asked me brightly: Were these the same guns I used to fire when I fought in the war? She looked at me with banal curiosity, hazel eyes narrowing in a pale face framed in silver by her white blonde hair.
No. I squeezed her little hand back, smiled and then said that thankfully, her father had not fought in any war. He had learnt how to though, and had had to practice. Oh, ok, she said. But if there was a war, would I have to fire guns again? I said yes, I might have to. But she did not need to worry, I said. We were living in peace for many years now, and hopefully would not have to experience fighting on our soil for many many years. In my heart, I wondered if this was true, but she nodded contentedly, lost in thought. We presently walked in the shadow of an empty hotel. I shivered. My daughter made another skip and turned to me. But wouldn’t we just run to another country if there was war? Maybe in the morning, when everyone else is still sleeping? Maybe there would be no fighting at her friend’s house? We could just go there! I smiled. Yep. That was a great idea. I squeezed her hand.
Flags, incense, and a quiet salute
We found seats in the still quite empty church next to a family who are good friends and whose older children, like ours, were altar servers. After a few minutes, the solemn marching of the long lines of men commenced. They entered the church from the back, dressed either in traditional Bavarian Tracht or uniform, they had assembled behind the banners of the veterans’ association, the craftsmen’s association, the firefighters and others filed orderly into the church, including several local officers of the German Army. The richly embroidered and exquisitely crafted flags were ceremoniously bowed in salute to the Lord in the tabernacle at the centre of the high altar and then planted in their brackets at the front of the church. The baroque interior quickly filled with incense clouds as the Eucharistic celebration commenced. The priest spoke of the many anniversaries of the day. His sermon brilliantly subsumed them into the readings of the day – the Feast Day of the Lateran Basilica no less – that draw the prophetic words of the temple of Jerusalem flowing into the sea to Saint Paul’s exposition of the Christian body as the new temple and the words of the Evangelist John describing how Jesus purged the money lenders from the Temple. As we sang to the sacrifice taking place that is summit and source of our belief, the music of the brass band rang out, blowing the fragrant coils into an intricate pattern of insinuations around us. Heavy fragrant clouds of incense wove themselves around the golden angels and colourful paintings, danced slowly in front of images of saints and dissolved into lingering curls around the autumnal light that had seeped through the clear, high windows only to be broken into minute rainbow clouds, thrown back up against walls and ceiling by the crystal prisms adorning the low-hanging chandeliers. As the priest raised the body of Christ over the altar, the bells rang out, and in the distance, another cannon shot was fired whilst the drummers gave a painful salute to the Redeemer, ringing out over the small bells shaken by the altar servers.
Marching outside after mass, we continued the prayers for the dead and missing, our ancestors and everyone else. Whilst firemen blocked the main road, a solemn circle of men and women stood around the memorial at the village centre: An ugly modernist block of stone with a steel statue on top. For a few minutes, it seemed to me to turn its ugliness into a stark relief of beauty: As we stood underneath and all prayed together for all those that died in the wars, and for all those who suffered: Lest we forget. Two soldiers stood salute, their guns gleaming under a burning flame. Above them towered, on top of a giant stone stele, a suddenly magnificent Archangel Michael, flaming sword in hand, defeating a writhing serpent. Beneath, two simple crosses of birchwood stood, one of them wearing an old Stahlhelm. After paying their respects to the dead and leaving behind the wreaths and a vestige of incense at the foot of these two crosses, the march dissolved into small groups that quickly disappeared from the scene.
All alone, I walked to the birchwood crosses and prayed for the souls of those we remember today. As I looked up, the statue of Saint Michael was back to its ugly modernist form. The blue sky was streaked with white jet streams. And my family was waiting for me to walk them home.