Friday, 7 April 2017
Catastrophes are Inclusive
I recently travelled to north west France with my mother. We visited a number of war graves.
We visited the cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast, near Arras. It is the largest German war cemetery in France. There are 44,833 men buried and commemorated there.
Like all war cemeteries, it is an immensely moving place.
Unlike many of the dozens and dozens of war cemeteries in north west France, the cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast is not well sign-posted. Neither does it make an appearance in the literature to commemorate the centenary of the war. The Germans, after all, were the baddies, and the losers.
But they were just boys, like so many others that died in that catastrophe.
And among them were Jews. It comes as something of a shock, to see Jewish markers alongside Christian markers in a German war cemetery. We see the past through the prism of subsequent events. The fact is, a century ago, Christian boys and Jewish boys were sent to their death by the same insanity.
Later, and nearby, we visited the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. The scale is daunting. Acres and acres of grounded are covered with graves; there are seven ossuaries, where the skeletons of innumerable unknown soldiers remain; an immense basilica sits atop the hill.
As in the German cemetery, there are Jewish graves here. What really took me back, however, was the presence of Muslim graves. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Here they are. Oriented to face Mecca.
Suddenly, at this time of so much anxiety and conflict grounded in disputes about faith, a powerful reminder: true catastrophes are inclusive. They affect everyone. Dead boys are dead boys, whether they are Muslim boys or Christian boys or Jewish boys.
It is wonderful, I think, that these cemeteries show such balanced respect to all those that died. It would be better still if we stopped squabbling, remembered how much we have in common, and eliminated any risk whatsoever of sending more boys to their deaths.