Remembrance and Hope

 Evening shadows at the National War Memorial, Ottawa

— Evening shadows at the National War Memorial, Ottawa

November 11, 1914 passed without significance, other than the growing realization that those who had dug down in the trenches of Flanders would not be home for Christmas.

Four years and millions of casualties later, it was a Canadian who was felled by the last bullet, just minutes ahead of the cease-fire.  George Price would otherwise probably have gone home, though perhaps to die of the Spanish flu that by itself would outpace “the war to end all wars” in lethality.

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There is some irony that the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall should also be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War of 1914-1918 (which became the First World War only when we decided to have another, after all).

As I walked through the Great War exhibit in the Deutches Museum in Berlin last month, throughout there were deliberate premonitions of what was to come.  The exhibit ended with the aftermath of the war in Germany, a box full of currency from the hyper-inflation, stories and pictures of unemployment and misery.

Where the British in particular were chided for their vitriolic propaganda against “the Hun,” the display noted ruefully that because of the invasion of Belgium (and the killing of some 2500 civilians, including women and children, who were thought to pose a threat to the initial German advance), “by Christmas 1914 Germany had lost the battle for world opinion as to who was responsible for starting the war.”

The display was more about people than battles, less about stuff than the poignancy of what was included (and not just from the German side).  A letter from one of the commanders responsible for the initial atrocities in Belgium laid out his personal discomfort with a decision he nonetheless supervised, if nothing else.  In contrast to posters displaying British vitriol, German propaganda focused on the positive, playing up the heroes defending the Fatherland, like Hindenburg, whose face was on everything from napkins to china teacups.

It was, of course, the same patriotic tack in propaganda that Hitler used, piggy-backing on the adulation for Hindenburg as Hitler supplanted him as Chancellor.  (Comparing the two approaches, it is easier to see at least some goodness in “the Hun” than it is to see any evil at all in “the hero.”)

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History is everywhere in the heart of Berlin.  It was an uneasy feeling to walk the Unter den Linden, through the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag, across to the Holocaust Memorial and then to the Topography of Terror (the museum/narration of the Third Reich, on the site where the security apparatus once stood).

Outside the building, feet from the excavated cellar walls of the Gestapo headquarters, is the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall, die Mauer.

In my mind’s eye, throughout, I could see the black and white news reel footage of Hitler, the crowds, the soldiers marching past.  The images in static displays in the museum on that site brought others back to mind, too, of the anguish on the faces of those destined for the camps and what lay there, the hollow-cheeked stares of those who survived.

Berlin is a city of ghosts, intermingled with the grim determination that brought about reunification after the Wall came down and which is rebuilding and reuniting a country shattered by war twice in the last hundred years.

After visiting the Wall and the Topography of Terror, there was time for a good German meal before attending the Berliner Philharmoniker.  The opening piece as Richard Wagner’s Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), played to a packed house with the same precision that brought the entire symphony from the wings to their seats and starting to play, on the stroke of 8:00 p.m., in less than two minutes.

Der Ring des Nibelungen, and especially this piece, obviously still strikes a deep chord among the German people.  I have never heard such deliberate, powerful applause from an entire audience after any performance.  (By comparison, applause for something from Brahms and for other selections was thoughtful and polite.)

They know they live with ghosts, but they are no longer too terrible to name and acknowledge.  Those ghosts serve a grim purpose: Germany’s future depends on remembering what happened and on not permitting such things to happen again.

I had intended to place a picture at the start of this blog that to me embodied hope in the midst of terrible memories, but decided it needed context first.  In the basement of the Topography of Terrors, on the precise site where those people who did not measure up to the Nazi standard of what it meant to be human were tortured and killed, where the deaths of millions of such “sub-humans” of all kinds was planned and orders issued to carry out these plans, I found this:

In the basement of "the Topography of Terror"

In the basement of “the Topography of Terror”

For all the silence upstairs and outside, as tourists wandered around, stunned by the meager displays of an overwhelming and methodical evil, this handicapped washroom stall, expertly arranged and immaculately maintained, was for me the sign of hope for Germany and, in fact, for us all.

The sub-text of these displays about the Nazi regime (and the Great War exhibit as well) was that such wars as we have seen these past hundred years, for the most part, were neither started nor fought by monsters.  They were the fault of ordinary people, who set aside their common sense and lost sight of their common humanity, and who then went about the business of war and its accoutrements as they would go about any other business.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

The first display of the Great War exhibit, what every visitor must walk by in order to enter what lies beyond, is of a British Field Marshal’s uniform.

It belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm, along with the pearl-handled revolver that sat on a stand, next to the explanation that both were gifts from his grandmother, who was concerned that with his withered arm, he would not be able to handle a rifle.  Throughout the war, when he reviewed his troops heading off to battle, he carried this revolver.

His grandmother, of course, was Queen Victoria.

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Grandmothers are on my mind today for other reasons.  Tomorrow, my grandmother (Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton) will turn 106. (She just found out she is the oldest official descendant of the United Empire Loyalists.)

She remembers, still, those events of the past century that you and I can only read about.  Living in rural Nova Scotia, she would have been turned six and looked forward to starting school as the soldiers dug into the ground in Flanders.

At age ten, she would have heard the news of the end of the War, only to catch the Spanish flu in 1918 along with her whole family, who were sick for a long time but all recovered.

Her father was the railway station agent in Maccan, in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. She remembers when he got a telegram from Halifax saying a soldier was coming home to a community on the Hebert/Joggins line to die, asking him to take care of the soldier in the station for three hours waiting for a transfer to the next train.

He took the arms out of one of the wooden benches in the station so that there would be a place for the soldier to lie down, and then brought bedding from home. My great grandmother helped set things up, then he sent her home and cared for the soldier by himself.

They both knew the risks. They arranged for food and supplies to be sent, for what care was possible should the disease spread to their family. The soldier came through, and the inevitable happened – my great-grandfather got sick, for about a month. My great-grandmother was much sicker, having to move to her parents for six months to recover. My grandmother and her sister both caught the disease as children and recovered more quickly, in a few weeks.

The soldier was one of the first of many cases that came through Halifax, and the disease spread wherever there was communication with the outside world.

Grandma remembers watching out her window to see the horse-drawn hearse coming by up the hill to the cemetery, and how the little white pony and the white wagon was used when a child had died.

That year, there were far too many trips to the cemetery.

All these years later, we are facing another potential global epidemic.  Ebola is a cruel and deadly disease, but there are many diseases just as cruel and far more common. We have learned a lot about disease and medicine since 1918, but this particular crisis needs to be managed, not avoided.

The frenzy around it reminds me, however, that the first casualty of any epidemic can be compassion.

I am glad to know how my family responded to the Spanish flu in 1918 and that my grandmother is still alive, not only to tell the story, but to teach the lesson.

Summer 2011 137

She lived through not one, but two World Wars. She experienced the Cold War and watched the Berlin Wall being built. She also lived to see it torn down.

Very few people have the privilege of the window on what life was like that I have experienced through conversations with her.

Compassion and a common humanity – always an antidote to hatred and fear, and in those we find hope for a better future.

Still.