Reflections on Dresden
Saturday 14 February 2015
Dresden on the 70th anniversary of the allied bombing is a place of deep emotion and sorrow. The Frauenkirche, the great church in the central square, destroyed on the night of 13th February 1945 and rebuilt after the liberation from Communist rule, is full much of the day, and in the evening it is a place of quiet reflection as hundreds of people come to pray, listen to music and stories of reconciliation and light candles. During the day there had been a powerful ceremony with contributions from the cities of Coventry, Rotterdam and Warsaw among others.
The feeling is different but parallel to that of Coventry Cathedral where I worked for five years, in charge of the ministry of reconciliation which since World War II has stretched around the world. There too ruins gave birth to a new church, the Cathedral; there too hope sprang from death and ashes. The two churches are linked by a twinning relationship, as are the cities.
Both places attract young people caught by the hope of peace and reconciliation. Both are very powerful reminders of what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war". In many wars it is the civilians who bear the brunt of the pain, and especially from 1939-1945. They are almost always innocent. In Coventry and Dresden that was especially so.
Neo Nazis had attempted to cause trouble in Dresden, as always. The people of Dresden, as always, reject the manipulation of the truth of the events of 1945 and link hands in a symbolic circle round the city centre to keep out such lies.
What a sadness then that late in the evening someone showed me a headline in the Daily Mail saying that I had apologised for the RAF bombing the Nazis. No honest reading of what I said in the church and on the BBC afterwards could come anywhere near such an idea. Contrary to the Mail's report, on the BBC I spoke clearly of the bombing of British cities, mentioning especially Coventry and London. I also spoke of the terrible losses of the heroic crews of Bomber Command. My grandmother's brother was killed on his first mission, in a Wellington. My exact words (to BBC Radio 5 Live, and please excuse the incoherence!) were:
"5 Live: And in the sense of Dresden, is one of the ways forward to apologise for what happened? Do you think Britain and America should apologise for what happened in Dresden?
JW: That’s a very complicated question, because when you listen to people who were in Bomber Command and you hear of their suffering, I lived in Coventry and you see the suffering there, in London we know of the Blitz, and in many other cities right across the United Kingdom and round the world, I think it’s more complicated than 'should we apologise?'. I think there is a deep need for profound sorrow at the events and the causes of such dreadful times as Europe lived through. And there’s also reason for hope and encouragement that Europe has become a centre of reconciliation in the world - a great miracle."
The contrast with the sorrow of Dresden, the deep recognition of the cruelty, tragedy and evil of war, could not have been greater.
So I want to get back to the moving and tragic recognition in Dresden that the great evil of the Nazis created a great war, and during it terrible things were done, by necessity, by the nature of war. Churchill said "jaw-jaw is better than war-war". So let us mourn and learn, honour the heroism of those who defeated Hitler and his regime, celebrate our freedoms, and in the strength of Jesus Christ struggle for peace and reconciliation, of which he is the source.
Author: Justin Welby