It’s interesting that the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Berlin wall coming down have almost coincided with Remembrance Day on this 100th anniversary year of World War One.
About 18 months after the iron curtain crumbled, I visited Germany as the Scottish representative at a European Base Christian Communities gathering. The meeting took place in a Church centre whose name I no longer recall but which had on occasion been a place of temporary sanctuary for people who had managed to escape from the GDR. Clearly a risky business.
At a remembrance service I attended on Sunday, the preacher focussed on the work of Edith Cavell. Before war broke out, she had been working in Belgium setting up nursing training and felt she had to return to mainland Europe. At her trial she acknowledged that she had been smuggling allied soldiers out to neutral Netherlands while nursing the injured Germans in occupied Belgium. She refused to take sides when it came to the wounded, but believed it her duty to help the allied soldiers escape, paying the ultimate price. She was shot for treason in 1915 under German military law.
In a complex world where right and wrong are often less clearly defined than we would like, war enforces ‘taking sides’ often with terrible consequences. Edith Cavell, raised in an Anglican parsonage in Norfolk, made choices from Christian conviction which put her in danger. She famously said, ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.’
Hers is a famous story but the 100th anniversary has brought to the surface hundreds and thousands of stories as people find photos and letters in their attics or in boxes long unopened. It makes human the generalities we profess and pronounce and reminds us that however technological war becomes, it is waged by and happens to human beings. ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.’
Edith Cavell is to be featured on a UK commemorative £5 coin, part of a set to be issued in 2015 to mark the centenary of the war. She is honoured in the Anglican calendar on 12th October.