Sunday, 27 May 2007

Honouring Dead Soldiers

Soldiers and death have long been a controversial topic in Germany – not just because of the Nazi past. In the German peace movement, for example, a slogan – borrowed from Kurt Tucholsky – is very popular: “Soldiers are Murderers.” A few years ago, the German Constitutional Court ruled that this slogan did not constitute slander, and therefore was a legitimate use of freedom of expression, so long as it wasn't used to describe any particular soldier. A fair enough legal cop-out to resolve the problem.

But now the topic soldiers and death is re-emerging again in a very different way, which, alas, will not be resolved by a clever judge. In the “Bonn Republic” it was taboo to use the German army for military missions abroad. But since 1994, German soldiers have been participating in foreign missions once again – and over the last thirteen years 69 have died in combat, including some who were killed a few days ago in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. It has become increasingly apparent that their comrades and families wish that there was a central monument at which they could remember the dead. This is understandable.

It is also important for a democracy not to turn its eyes away when citizens have died on a mission which the people – represented by Parliament – has sent them on. After all, unnecessary wars can best be avoided when all voters are well-aware of the faces and stories of the nation's own victims. This insight has inspired Immanuel Kant's stipulation in Perpetual Peace that a nation should not have a standing army, so that all citizens must fear that any victims of a war they embark upon might be friend or even family. Not to credit Bush with Kant's analytical gifts, this is also the very reason why the US President wouldn't allow the coffins of American soldiers to be photographed...

At the same time, though, the opposite danger also exists. The pictures of glorifying or simply tasteless war monuments in Germany express this more eloquently than words. All too easily, war monuments can either speak too positively of war, in an attempt to justify the immense suffering (I expressly avoid the word “sacrifice”, though suffering is perhaps also euphemistic) it imposes on victims. Or they speak of the dead, often in their teens when they were slain in the battlefield, as though they had willingly laid down their life in pursuit of a noble ideal. Whilst the former phenomenon is particularly true of 19th century and Nazi-time German monuments, the latter holds for many 20th century designs too – I have, for example, often observed it on English World War I memorials.

It is imperative that we are more honest with ourselves, even when talking about soldiers who died on missions we wholly approve of. Even when soldiers were indeed pursuing a noble ideal, and even when they did make a conscious decision to risk their life, it is too easy too elevate them into a moral sainthood which only serves to mask the fact that we all, as citizens of a democracy, sent them to their death. So please no more talk of teenagers valliantly and willingly laying down their life – whether it be for the most noble cause or the basest nationalism.

Assuming that a new German war memorial will soon be built, the real question therefore is what the inscription should be. I've already noted two possible dangers, which should at all cost be avoided – even if, in the extreme case, the cost is not building the monument.

Let me finish with a suggestion from Munich. On the Leopoldstrasse, a central, representative 19th century boulevard, a rather martial triumph arc has stood for one and a half centuries. Its original inscription: “To the victories of the Bavarian Army”. After it was destroyed in World War II, the monument was rebuilt, with its original inscription on one side. But on the other side, it now reads, in plain latters and sober, evocative language:

“Dem Sieg geweiht. Vom Krieg zerstört. Dem Frieden mahnend”

“Dedicated to Victory. Destroyed by War. Calling to Peace”


James said...

I am officially APPALLED! All the best in Munich Yascha and please keep in touch.

Benoit Du Cann said...

In the case of Iraq, the incumbent governments were not elected on a majority of the overall electorate and the situation prior to their election and pre war were very different, so I dont feel responsable for the deaths of British citizens in Iraq.
Anyway why not applaud the virtue of these people? They did die for the country, no? Is bravery not a virtue that can be celebrated without people calling it nationalistic. Would you not say that we should venerate the courage of the international factions who fought in the spanish civil war? I agree with you we should not glorify war... but we can glorify "teenagers" who died, becuase they held an ideal (wther it was noble or not) and they put it before their own lives.