60 Years on
01 August 2005

Few countries have worked so hard to come to terms with their past, to repair, to restore as Germany has.

The European media have been full of articles, documentaries, recollections to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II —perhaps because this is one of the last anniversaries with large numbers of the participants still around to tell their tales.

And at last we can start to recognize the terrible suffering of the Germans: the flattening of most of their cities, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, signed by the British and the Americans; the hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the rubbing out of thousand-year-old Germanic cultures in many parts of Eastern Europe.

Thousands of German women were raped by Russian soldiers; German prisoners of war were shipped off to Siberia, many never to return—for these German prisoners there were no Red Cross visits, as the Soviets had not signed the Geneva Conventions.

Few countries have worked so hard to come to terms with their past, to repair, to restore. I look forward to visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.


How hard it is for all our countries to come to terms with the shadow chapters of our past. Many Swiss have been brought up on a mythologized history of a nation protected through World War II by its virtues and its readiness to defend its neutrality—and of course part of that is true.

But there were also the necessary compromises with the surrounding Axis powers, and the unjustifiable handing back of Jewish refugees to their Nazi killers.

The Initiatives of Change centre in Caux housed 1,600 Jews at the end of the war, and there’s a plaque, reading: ‘In remembrance of the Jewish refugees who stayed here, and of those who were not admitted to enter Switzerland during World War II. We shall not forget.’

My hero from this terrible time is a German: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Protestant theologian, resister of the Nazi evil, he was executed just one month before the end of the war. He memorably said: ‘If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction,’ and ‘Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility’.

In many ways, World War II is only coming to an end now. The countries occupied by the Soviet Army are resuming their own independent histories and moving slowly towards becoming genuine democracies. The freedoms that the war was in part fought for are becoming real.

Through most of World War II, Switzerland was an island surrounded by the Axis powers and the countries they occupied. Today Switzerland is surrounded by the European Union. And some in Switzerland sound as if the threat was much the same!

Democracy is a difficult business: and so is international cooperation. Some democrats seem to be having their doubts about both, as Europe moves into a period of crisis after French and Dutch voters rejected its new constitution. Have proud old nation states ever tried to work together, to pool sovereignty, while still remaining independent? There seems to be a growing divorce between leaders and led; between the media and the public.

We’ve had a referendum in Switzerland, too. We voted on ‘Schengen/Dublin’, and decided to become associate members of the European Union’s police and refugee systems. Even islands have to live with their neighbours!

In some parts of the world, people are still risking their lives for the right to have a say in the way they are governed. Perhaps we all have something new to learn about democracy, and about a democratic debate.

So many important issues require ‘the political will’. Politicians, the media and public opinion can work together to bring about change—as, for example, in the campaign to ban antipersonnel land-mines—but ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’, as it says in the Bible. That’s why I’m interested in the search for ‘a heart and a soul for Europe’, the theme of one of the conferences at the Caux centre this summer. Read all about it in the next issue of For A Change.

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