Part of the job of democrats is always to warn, never to forget, writes Fergus Finlay
To the best of my knowledge, my father witnessed no atrocities during the Second World War. He wasn’t maimed or wounded – I don’t think he served on any of the front lines of that war. But he did his duty as he saw it.
Throughout his life, my father had a very strong sense of right and wrong, and an equally strong sense of where his duty lay. Although I never discussed it with him in any detail – and that’s one of my regrets now – I know that right from the beginning of the War he felt, like thousands of other Irish people, that it was impossible to stand aside from a war against Hitler.
So he joined the British Army, and was posted to nowhere more glamorous than Belfast. He spent his war as an Army instructor, with the rank of Sergeant Major, teaching English squaddies from disadvantaged backgrounds to read and write.
I don’t know much about my Dad’s war or his place in the scheme of things. He never volunteered much, and I never really asked. He talked about other stuff, but where his military service was concerned, whatever the reason, it was as if that was over now. Nothing to see here.
And of course he would have had friends and colleagues who despised the very thought of fighting for king and country, no matter who the enemy was.
Maybe that was the reason my parents’ war was cloaked in silence. Maybe that’s the reason an annual ceremony like VE Day has never had much resonance for me – and, I suspect, for many like me in my generation in Ireland. Of course, it must be harder still for it to have meaning for later generations.
But that changed for me last weekend. Suddenly it was borne in on me with indelible force that the 8th of May in 1945 was one of the most important and significant days of the 20th century.
It was the day the Second World War came to an end in Europe. It was the day that marked the end of the Nazi reign of tyranny. It was the day that night-time bombing raids and death marches came to an end. It was the end of unprecedented German crimes and the end of the Holocaust, that betrayal of all civilised values. It started in Berlin, where the war of annihilation was conceived and from where it was unleashed, and it eventually returned to Berlin with the full force of destruction.
That’s what is remembered and celebrated on VE Day. And the reason that description held such emotional force for me, for the first time, is because it’s contained in the words of a German speaker. It was a German who gave thanks for the ending of German crimes.
And no ordinary German. Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the President of Germany. He’s not a household name, and his office is nowhere near as important in real terms as the office of Chancellor. The Presidency in Germany is rather like ours, although with some additional powers and discretions. But just like Michael D, the President of Germany is expected to represent the State on great occasions and to do it with honour.
And this year the President’s speech – and the coronavirus context – turned the occasion into an unforgettable one. It’s worth searching out on the web, to capture the atmosphere and read the speech in full. I hope and suspect it will affect you too.
The context of the virus made the occasion especially poignant and moving, because instead of thousands of people and endless pomp and ceremony, only five people took part, watched by the nation on television. They were the President and the Chancellor, and three holders of high constitutional office.
All looked of an age to have personal memories and at least family connections with the war. One of them, Wolfgang Schauble, lives in a wheelchair since an assassination attempt more than twenty years ago. They each laid wreaths in the “Neue Wache” – itself an astonishingly moving building dedicated to the memory of victims of war and dictatorship – and listened, two metres apart from each other, as the President delivered an unforgettable speech.
There was a line in the middle of it – in the middle of the English translation, which is readily available – that has stuck in my head ever since. It’s a line from a great Hebrew scholar and Jewish Rabbi, Rabbi Nachman.
President Steinmeier quoted him as saying "No heart is as whole as a broken heart."
That is why, the President said, the first line of the German Constitution says, "Human dignity shall be inviolable." It’s there, he said, as a public reminder of what happened in Auschwitz, of what happened in the war and during the dictatorship.
“It is not remembrance that is a burden – it is non-remembrance that becomes a burden. It is not professing responsibility that is shameful – it is denial that is shameful.” Hate still lives in the world. We have our share of hate-mongers in Ireland too. One of them was busy on twitter over the past weekend, sending out messages about a fake pandemic and threatening the Gardai with a “#Nuremberg” and long jail terms for “trying to impose fascism on us”.
This person – who would be easier to dismiss if she didn’t have 50,000 followers on social media – is part of a pernicious campaign to use the current situation as a vehicle for hate.
It’s not in the same league, of course it’s not, as the hate that President Steinmeier talked about. But real leaders see the need to bring people together at moments like this. Those who wish to divide in the middle of a global health crisis are surely aware of the risk they run. Some – like Trump – run that risk recklessly.
But there are always others, with darker intent, hidden in the shadows. It has always been that way. Part of the job of democracy is to ensure that those shadows are pierced by light. And part of the job of democrats is always to warn, never to forget.
That’s the real power of Steinmeier’s speech, the reason it will be remembered. My father fought against Hitler, in his own humble way, because he was above all a democrat. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t needed to carry a gun. But it did matter in the end that he left others behind him able to read and write.
And therefore, learn, and reason, and think. As Steinmeier said, “8 May was not the end of the liberation – preserving freedom and democracy is the never-ending task it has bequeathed us.”