When I was in High School there was a dance after every football game in the building behind the municipal field, aptly named The Veterans Memorial Building. During breaks in the music I used to walk the halls and look at the pictures of those who had lost their lives in the World and Korean wars. Before I graduated there were two more photos of guys I knew who had been in Viet Nam.
In Edinburgh we saw plaque after plaque listing the dead from every conflict since the Boer War. In Australia we walked through huge memorials commemorating the ANZAC sacrifices at Gallipoli. All of these are meant to help us remember those who gave the last measure of devotion to God and country. They are us and our allies whom I have always thought of as, “the Good Guys.”
Slovakia is a mixed bag. Because of the Soviet occupation after WW2 most of the memorials celebrate the Russian “liberators” who became oppressors themselves. Recent statues and plaques celebrate more homegrown heroes.
Being so close to Austria, Steph and I have walked and biked through picturesque villages surrounded by landscapes so fresh you could taste the green. They too have memorials to the men who didn’t come home from the war. In one very small hamlet, high in the Alps, the list of names seemed to exceed the possible addresses in the place. Whole families must have been destroyed. And there was one other thing… these men had fought and died for Germany.
My whole life the word “Nazi” has been synonymous with evil and that particular political and social philosophy, with its racist/nationalist consequences was indeed horribly evil. Conscripts or simple patriots or no, to have fought in a war on “that side” is unfathomable to us. I know as a Christian I’m supposed to believe that redemption is always possible but I guess I treated it as if it had limits. However, on an unremarkable day in rural Austria, with children playing and farmers tending their cows in the distance and old women sitting in the sun, grace took me by surprise. Those names on the wall ceased to be the enemy.
Which one of them was raised in that yellow stucco house I just passed? Did he attend that little school on the hill? Did these boys play football on Saturdays in that field over there? Which one of them was the paper boy? Who helped his father deliver the milk? How many of these old women read one of these names and remember a first kiss?
Weeping mothers holding telegrams containing the word “Stalingrad”, children who wondered why brothers and uncles and fathers never came back, and wives who longed to hear their husband call their name again… did they think of these men as evil? No… they were loved ones, tragically lost to those they loved. These were the boys from the village. Their mothers and fathers and sisters and wives just didn’t want their names to be forgotten.
It is easier to have horrible feelings, to cling to prejudice, and to pronounce confident judgement from an ignorant distance. It is harder when there are names and faces and you have walked in their village. When we stop somewhere, Steph likes to get us out to stretch our legs.
It changes us.