Memorial Day: Reflections on those who made the ultimate sacrifice (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, May 29, 2006, Slate)
The soil of the United States is almost spoiled for choice when it comes to commemorative sites. They range from Gettysburg itself–still one of the most staggering places of memory in the world–to the Confederate statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, and extend from the Polar Bear monument in Detroit (honoring those Michiganders who helped invade Russia in 1919: a forgotten war if ever there was one) to Maya Lin’s masterpiece of Vietnam understatement on the National Mall. But Memorial Day transcends the specific, and collectivizes all disparate recollections into one single reflection upon the losses inflicted by war itself. The summa of this style, and one that transcends Pericles, is of course the Gettysburg Address, in which one cannot distinguish which side’s graves are actually being honored. It was always Mr. Lincoln’s way to insist that he was the elected president of every state, not just the “Northern” ones, and this speech still has the power to stir us because it was the most strenuous possible test of that essential proposition.
A memorial to, and for, all is certainly an improvement on the Arc de Triomphe/Brandenburg Gate style, which was regnant until 1918 and which asserted national exclusivity. Kemal Ataturk did a noble thing when he raised a monument to all those who fell at Gallipoli, and informed the British and Australian peoples that their “Tommies and Johnnies” would lie with his “Alis and Mehmets.” But there are also disadvantages to a memorial that is too “inclusive.” Not even President Reagan’s fine speech at the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc has erased his crass equation of the “victims” at Bitburg cemetery with their victims. Bitburg is not Gettysburg: Some wounds cannot and perhaps should not be healed.
That’s just facile nonsense from a fellow who’s been scorched by past accusations of personal anti-Semitism and who, at the time of the Reagan speech at Bitburg, was on the wrong side of history. We included that speech (immeasurably better than even the fine Pointe-du-Hoc) in our book precisely because folks have unjustly forgotten just what he said there, in an address that extended Lincoln’s national New Birth of Freedom universally, Remarks at a Joint German-American Military Ceremony at Bitburg Air Base in the Federal Republic of Germany (Ronald Reagan, May 5, 1985):
Thank you very much. I have just come from the cemetery where German war dead lay at rest. No one could visit there without deep and conflicting emotions. I felt great sadness that history could be filled with such waste, destruction, and evil, but my heart was also lifted by the knowledge that from the ashes has come hope and that from the terrors of the past we have built 40 years of peace, freedom, and reconciliation among our nations.
This visit has stirred many emotions in the American and German people, too. I’ve received many letters since first deciding to come to Bitburg cemetery; some supportive, others deeply concerned and questioning, and others opposed. Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much because this should be a time of healing.
To the veterans and families of American servicemen who still carry the scars and feel the painful losses of that war, our gesture of reconciliation with the German people today in no way minimizes our love and honor for those who fought and died for our country. They gave their lives to rescue freedom in its darkest hour. The alliance of democratic nations that guards the freedom of millions in Europe and America today stands as living testimony that their noble sacrifice was not in vain.
No, their sacrifice was not in vain. I have to tell you that nothing will ever fill me with greater hope than the sight of two former war heroes who met today at the Bitburg ceremony; each among the bravest of the brave; each an enemy of the other 40 years ago; each a witness to the horrors of war. But today they came together, American and German, General Matthew B. Ridgway and General Johanner Steinhoff, reconciled and united for freedom. They reached over the graves to one another like brothers and grasped their hands in peace.
To the survivors of the Holocaust: Your terrible suffering has made you ever vigilant against evil. Many of your are worried that reconciliation means forgetting. Well, I promise you, we will never forget. I have just come this morning from Bergen-Belsen, where the horror of that terrible crime, the Holocaust, was forever burned upon my memory. No, we will never forget, and we say with the victims of that Holocaust: Never again.
The war against one man’s totalitarian dictatorship was not like other wars. The evil war of nazism turned all values upside down. Nevertheless, we can mourn the German war dead today as human beings crushed by a vicious ideology.
There are over 2,000 buried in Bitburg cemetery. Among them are 48 members of the SS — the crimes of the SS must rank among the most heinous in human history — but others buried there were simply soldiers in the German Army. How many were fanatical followers of a dictator and willfully carried out his cruel orders? And how many were conscripts, forced into service during the death throes of the Nazi war machine? We do not know. Many, however, we know from the dates on their tombstones, were only teenagers at the time. There is one boy buried there who died a week before his 16th birthday.
There were thousands of such soldiers to whom nazism meant no more than a brutal end to a short life. We do not believe in collective guilt. Only God can look into the human heart, and all these men have now met their supreme judge, and they have been judged by Him as we shall all be judged.
Our duty today is to mourn the human wreckage of totalitarianism, and today in Bitburg cemetery we commemorated the potential good in humanity that was consumed back then, 40 years ago. Perhaps if that 15-year-old soldier had lived, he would have joined his fellow countrymen in building this new democratic Federal Republic of Germany, devoted to human dignity and the defense of freedom that we celebrate today. Or perhaps his children or his grandchildren might be among you here today at the Bitburg Air Base, where new generations of Germans and Americans join together in friendship and common cause, dedicating their lives to preserving peace and guarding the security of the free world.
Too often in the past each war only planted the seeds of the next. We celebrate today the reconciliation between our two nations that has liberated us from that cycle of destruction. Look at what together we’ve accomplished. We who were enemies are now friends; we who were bitter adversaries are now the strongest of allies.
In the place of fear we’ve sown trust, and out of the ruins of war has blossomed an enduring peace. Tens of thousands of Americans have served in this town over the years. As the mayor of Bitburg has said, in that time there have been some 6,000 marriages between Germans and Americans, and many thousands of children have come from these unions. This is the real symbol of our future together, a future to be filled with hope, friendship, and freedom.
The hope that we see now could sometimes even be glimpsed in the darkest days of the war. I’m thinking of one special story — that of a mother and her young son living alone in a modest cottage in the middle of the woods. And one night as the Battle of the Bulge exploded not far away, and around them, three young American soldiers arrived at their door — they were standing there in the snow, lost behind enemy lines. All were frostbitten; one was badly wounded. Even though sheltering the enemy was punishable by death, she took them in and made them a supper with some of her last food. Then, they heard another knock at the door. And this time four German soldiers stood there. The woman was afraid, but she quickly said with a firm voice, “There will be no shooting here.” She made all the soldiers lay down their weapons, and they all joined in the makeshift meal. Heinz and Willi, it turned out, were only 16; the corporal was the oldest at 23. Their natural suspicion dissolved in the warmth and the comfort of the cottage. One of the Germans, a former medical student, tended the wounded American.
But now, listen to the rest of the story through the eyes of one who was there, now a grown man, but that young lad that had been her son. He said: “The Mother said grace. I noticed that there were tears in her eyes as she said the old, familiar words, `Komm, Herr Jesus. Be our guest.’ And as I looked around the table, I saw tears, too, in the eyes of the battle-weary soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.”
That night — as the storm of war tossed the world — they had their own private armistice. And the next morning, the German corporal showed the Americans how to get back behind their own lines. And they all shook hands and went their separate ways. That happened to be Christmas Day, 40 years ago.
Those boys reconciled briefly in the midst of war. Surely we allies in peacetime should honor the reconciliation of the last 40 years.
To the people of Bitburg, our hosts and the hosts of our servicemen, like that generous woman 40 years ago, you make us feel very welcome. Vielen dank. [Many thanks.]
And to the men and women of Bitburg Air Base, I just want to say that we know that even with such wonderful hosts, your job is not an easy one. You serve around the clock far from home, always ready to defend freedom. We’re grateful, and we’re very proud of you.
Four decades ago we waged a great war to lift the darkness of evil from the world, to let men and women in this country and in every country live in the sunshine of liberty. Our victory was great, and the Federal Republic, Italy, and Japan are now in the community of free nations. But the struggle for freedom is not complete, for today much of the world is still cast in totalitarian darkness.
Twenty-two years ago President John F. Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall and proclaimed that he, too, was a Berliner. Well, today freedom-loving people around the world must say: I am a Berliner. I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism. I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag. I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam. I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban, and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism.
The one lesson of World War II, the one lesson of nazism, is that freedom must always be stronger than totalitarianism and that good must always be stronger than evil. The moral measure of our two nations will be found in the resolve we show to preserve liberty, to protect life, and to honor and cherish all God’s children.
That is why the free, democratic Federal Republic of Germany is such a profound and hopeful testament to the human spirit. We cannot undo the crimes and wars of yesterday nor call back the millions back to life, but we can give meaning to the past by learning its lessons and making a better future. We can let our pain drive us to greater efforts to heal humanity’s suffering.
Today I’ve traveled 220 miles from Bergen-Belsen, and, I feel, 40 years in time. With the lessons of the past firmly in our minds, we’ve turned a new, brighter page in history.
One of the many who wrote me about this visit was a young woman who had recently been bas mitzvahed. She urged me to lay the wreath at Bitburg cemetery in honor of the future of Germany. And that is what we’ve done.
On this 40th anniversary of World War II, we mark the day when the hate, the evil, and the obscenities ended, and we commemorate the rekindling of the democratic spirit in Germany.
There’s much to make us hopeful on this historic anniversary. One of the symbols of that hate — that could have been that hope, a little while ago, when we heard a German band playing the American National Anthem and an American band playing the German National Anthem. While much of the world still huddles in the darkness of oppression, we can see a new dawn of freedom sweeping the globe. And we can see in the new democracies of Latin America, in the new economic freedoms and prosperity in Asia, in the slow movement toward peace in the Middle East, and in the strengthening alliance of democratic nations in Europe and America that the light from that dawn is growing stronger.
Together, let us gather in that light and walk out of the shadow. Let us live in peace.
Thank you, and God bless you all.