National Day of Mourning: Reconciliation at the Graveside
Written by: Inka v. Puttkamer; photographer: Katharina Roggmann
Hamburg, 19 November 2017
Admiral Stawitzki during his commemorative address on the occasion of the National Day of Mourning
First row, second from left: Dr. Liane Melzer, Director of the Altona District; third from left: Consul General of France in Hamburg, Laurent Toulouse
Representatives of different nations participated in the National Day of Mourning commemoration event
Die britische Band "Band of the Royal Armoured Corps"
The French Consul General Toulouse addressing the participants
German officers laying a wreath
The Italian Consul General Giorgio Taborri at the cemetery
Honorary Consul Nicholas Teller during the wreath-laying ceremony
This year, the commemorative ceremony on the occasion of the National Day of Mourning at the cemetery in Hamburg-Blankenese took place in a special setting: Rear Admiral Carsten Stawitzki, Commandant of the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College (BwCSC), had invited representatives of former German wartime enemies to join him in the wreath-laying ceremony. Representatives of the United States, Britain, France and Italy stood side by side with Germans to commemorate the dead. The idea to invite approximately 100 guests from different nations to commemorate the war dead is so far unique. Students of the international General/Admiral Staff Officer Course also attended the ceremony, which thus saw soldiers from four different continents assembled.
Many different languages, but one common prayer
In stormy November weather, the ceremony began with a prayer service led by the Protestant Military Dean at the BwCSC, Dr. Hartwig von Schubert. He reminded the audience of the atrocities of the wars. After the Lord's Prayer had been recited by all present—everyone praying in their native language—, he concluded that, on this day, they all bowed their heads as both perpetrators and victims, no matter which country they came from. Then the guests gathered around the cemetery's memorial stone.
"Commemoration must be firmly embedded within society"
Framed by an honor formation consisting of French officers studying at the Helmut Schmidt University (Bundeswehr University, Hamburg), Admiral Stawitzki then welcomed the numerous guests. Quoting from Erich Maria Remarque's novel “Im Westen nichts Neues” (All Quiet on the Western Front), he confronted the audience directly with the everyday life of an ordinary soldier fighting in a war that took place a hundred years ago. He emphasized that people from nations whose soldiers once went out to fight each other were now standing shoulder to shoulder: "On this day, we are standing here as friends, as allies and as partners—in the knowledge that we can only deal with the global challenges of our time if we all work together."
Peace in Europe
Admiral Stawitzki reminded his audience of the truly marvelous fact that Europe is experiencing the longest ever period of peace since World War II. "Only those who confront the past may learn from it." The past obliges us to always base our actions on the norms of humanity and the rule of law and to act with an open mind and a tolerant attitude at all times, Admiral Stawitzki pointed out. "This is our responsibility—to speak out decidedly and courageously, loudly and with all our strength, if need be, whenever human dignity is affected in any way." Saying this, the Commandant of the Command and Staff College also referred to the great number of soldiers, police officers, development aid workers and volunteers from all nations who are currently on missions abroad.
Remembrance and orientation
The Band of the British Royal Armoured Corps had come all the way from Great Britain to provide a worthy musical background for the event. As the band played the lament "Lied vom guten Kameraden" (The Good Comrade), a solemn atmosphere resonated among the guests that was expressed by the subsequent words of commemoration. An important message of this event was that on the National Day of Mourning we commemorate not only the soldiers fallen in World Wars I and II, but also the service members who were killed in action in the course of more than 60 years of Bundeswehr history, and the victims of terror and violence. The French Consul General Laurent Toulouse spoke on behalf of the international guests of honor. In a moving speech, he expressed his gratitude from the bottom of his heart—gratitude for the fact that for the first time, representatives of the former wartime enemies had come together for a commemorative ceremony. Consul General Toulouse stated that with sound patriotism and common sense, the past not only obliges us to commemorate but, first and foremost, to shape the future. And this holds true for all peoples and all nations. At this event, the future was represented by students of the "Lycée Français de Hambourg".
Towards the end of the ceremony, the guests of honor laid wreaths to the memorial stone: For Germany, Admiral Stawitzki laid down a wreath. For Italy, a wreath was laid by Consul General Giorgio Taborri; Honorary Consul Nicholas Teller laid a wreath to express the commemorative sentiment of Great Britain, and military attaché Colonel Terry Anderson did the same on behalf of the United States. Consul General Toulouse was the last to place a wreath. The ceremony then concluded with the French lament "Aux Morts", a minute of silence and finally the hopeful European anthem.
After the ceremony, the guests returned to the BwCSC where they enjoyed a hearty pea soup and seized the opportunity to discuss the event. All agreed that it was the international framework that gave a special dignity to the entire ceremony. Dr. Liane Melzer, Director of the Altona District, addressed the guests in her capacity as a civil servant. She asked the question whether the National Day of Mourning still carried any significance as it seemed to be "far away from our day-to-day life". Her answer was a definite Yes, based on the need for international reconciliation. In view of recent conflicts within Europe, the objective of reconciliation will never lose its relevance. "Peace cannot be taken for granted"—Ms. Melzer concluded her speech by quoting Jean-Claude Juncker who, nine years ago on Remembrance Day, had called upon all eurosceptics to visit military cemeteries in order to become aware of the immeasurable suffering that a lack of international understanding had once brought about.
An exemplary event
The 2016 National General/Admiral Staff Officer Course was chiefly responsible for the perfect organization of the commemoration ceremony. The positive response from all guests—coming from different countries, including both service members and civilians, the age span ranging from two to eighty years—clearly shows that the National Day of Mourning is not just a remnant from the past but an event observed with active remembrance at the BwCSC and at the cemetery in Blankenese. All generations do their best to live up to the aforementioned responsibility.