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10 January 2014

Your country needs you

Your country needs you

WikiCommons: Public domain image - Alfred Leete

Some of the loose change in our purses or pockets will soon have the iconic image of Lord Kitchener's handlebar moustache and pointing finger. The Royal Mint chose his picture for the £2 coin commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. 

At the same time Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, has called for a more positive appraisal World War One in the school history curriculum. As the anniversary approaches we seem intent on taking sides rather than being open to learning from the past.

Six weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, I was preaching in the French town of Reims and began to question my own view of World War One. The Protestant church in Reims was rebuilt after having been completely destroyed by German bombs during the 'great war for civilisation'. I realised how much my own approach to the war fought on French, Belgian and Eastern European soil was formed not by Blackadder but by British poets, writers and novelists. Experiencing in person and not only on a map, just how far into France the German advance had reached made me think again.

One of my grandfathers fought in the Great War. He was already 24 in 1914 and must have been a student or trainee lawyer at the time that he enlisted or was conscripted. I know almost nothing about where he fought. There is some vague family memory of him being decorated for his war service, but it was the long-term aftermath of the war, the inability to make a lasting and meaningful peace internationally and at home that affected his life story much more. I do know enough of my grandfather's story to say that the buckle on his military belt was embossed with the words "God with us", though it was written in German: "Gott mit uns", because he was born in Danzig, in what was then Prussia and is now Poland.

A convert to Christianity, my grandfather had four Jewish grandparents. Despite having served his country when it needed him, he was put in a concentration camp for six weeks following the Nazi's Kristallnacht "night of broken glass" in November 1938. He was fortunate that some feisty people in Britain were willing to put their names to immigration papers in 1939 for each of the four members of the family – one person who signed was a Quaker, another was an evangelical Anglican, another a socialist lawyer.

Reparations against Germany following the war were vengeful, reflecting the reparations and humiliation France experienced at the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Only after the horrors of World War Two did some kind of understanding emerge that the only coinage that has real value in the aftermath of war is rebuilding: institutions, countries and communities.

War is always somehow fascinating, yet utterly appalling. In its wake comes instability, revolutions and mass displacement of peoples. Yet we continue to hear arguments about how it is 'inevitable' or 'just'. The scale of it is often too much to take in, strange details stick in our mind. For me it's that two out of five adult British males at the time were not fit enough to serve in the army and the reminder that many of the men who died for their country did not even have the right to vote, since full adult male suffrage was achieved only in 1918.

So I wonder does it really honour those who fought and died a hundred years ago to say 'we were right'? Surely war is almost always the sign of something being wrong, of a failure: of democracy, of diplomacy, of community, of the economy … The 1914-18 war plunged large swathes of Europe into revolution, regime-change and the redrawing of borders. Will we have the humility and generosity in our remembering to reappraise what 'we' got wrong?

Recently I met a Syrian friend. She watches from a far country as her family is repeatedly displaced within the country.It is desperate. And yet she said to me: "I do not want to say or do anything now that will not help reconciliation and peace in the future." Holding on to that kind of hope for tomorrow requires a very determined kind of courage.

In my purse I have currency from countries I regularly travel between: euros, pounds and Swiss francs, lots of coins. Whether it is Caesar's head or Kitchener's on the coins, I am called to follow the God of Jesus Christ. To set my feet on the path of peace I need the moral courage to remember the past in new ways. To heal memories. Who knows, it may even help make the future possible.

Jane Stranz is the ecumenical officer for the Protestant Federation of France