Bishop of Coventry leads Lords debate on the 70th Anniversary of the Dresden Bombing

“I hope that we will be ready to proclaim afresh to the world that the story of our nations over the last 70 years proves that peace is possible and that friendship is better than enmity” – Bishop of Coventry 12/3/15

On 12th March 2015 the Bishop of Coventry, Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, led a debate in the House of Lords on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. His opening speech can be seen below, along with the Minister’s response. The speeches of other members in the debate can be viewed on the UK Parliament website, here.

13.10 Bishop of Coventry

Dresden Bombing: 70th Anniversary

Question for Short Debate

2.39 pm

Asked by The Lord Bishop of Coventry

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing of Dresden.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, as the Minister knows, for some months I have been encouraging the Government to engage in an appropriate way with the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. I should say at the outset how grateful I am for the graciousness of the Minister’s responses to me on several occasions. I also express my appreciation to David Lidington, Minister of State for European issues and NATO, for the serious consideration that he gave to my approaches; and to Sir Simon McDonald, the British ambassador to Germany, for the fine words of the statement that he released on 13 February, the day of the anniversary.

I have been clear throughout that my intention has not been to enter the continuing debate over the moral propriety or military value of the bombing of Dresden. Without denying the seriousness of such questions, my focus has been on the words and gestures that may help to heal the wound of history which the events of 13 and 14 February 1945 represent and thus to take our two countries, which have travelled so far already along the long road to lasting reconciliation, a few more steps along the way. In my own mind this debate serves the same purpose, focused as it is on the 70th anniversary commemoration rather than the bombing itself. I would like to make four comments that arise from my own participation in the commemoration.

The first is on the hospitality of the city of Dresden to the many visitors who came from across Europe to join in the commemoration, and the dignity with which the events were conducted. The bombing of Dresden, with its scale of destruction and death, touches many nerves—many of them still exposed in Germany and elsewhere, including here in the UK. The mayor, Oberbürgermeisterin Helma Orosz, navigated the city through the commemoration with great skill. She was determined that it should reflect the city’s key values of

“openness to the world and tolerance”,

values which she knows only too well are regularly under threat and need to be guarded vigilantly. The mayor’s call to the people of Dresden to form a circle of peace around the old city to stand against the far right’s demonstrations has become a regular and moving feature of the annual commemorations. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government may take this opportunity to congratulate Mayor Orosz and her colleagues on their resolve to lead the commemoration in ways that served the purposes of peace and reconciliation.

The second area of my comments is the value to those purposes of British guests sharing in the remembrance of the suffering of the country that was once our enemy and on which we, in the dreadful storms of war, rained death. As I know from Coventry’s commemoration of its own bombing, the participation of such representatives in the pain of remembrance forges deeper solidarity in our common humanity and brings about a transformation of relationships. It is important for our own country not only to participate respectfully in the remembrance of the allied raids that brought death to up to 25,000 people and injury to thousands more but to look into the faces of the survivors, who were then children. For example, Eberhard Renner, who was 12 at the time, tells us that the sight of the,

“charred corpse of one woman … on a pavement”,

lying with wedding ring on her outstretched hand gleaming in the sun, “still haunts me today”. To stand with a city that experienced such extremes of suffering is to be reminded of the hell into which Europe descended, and galvanized to work for peace in places that are today spiralling deeper into the madness of war.

The healing effect of well chosen words and generous gestures over a number of years was proven by Dresden’s decision to award its prestigious peace prize to His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. I am sure that noble Lords and the Government will want to congratulate both His Royal Highness on his award and the city of Dresden on generously granting it, in this of all years, to a senior representative of the UK. Our country was ably represented by the Duke of Kent, by the British ambassador, by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the Lord Mayor of Coventry and, I am proud to say, by many other Coventrians. I understand that, for reasons of protocol, Her Majesty’s Government were not represented in person. May I therefore ask the Minister whether the Government will consider other ways that they might relate to the city of Dresden? One such appropriate occasion would be the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche in October this year.

The third area worthy of comment is the address of President Gauck, which was a remarkable reflection on what makes for good remembrance—the sort of remembrance that leads to learning and better ways of living for the future. In his speech in the Frauenkirche, he showed that good remembrance is honest: the “murderous war”, he said, began with Germany. Good remembrance is disciplined: it refuses, he argued, to “instrumentalise remembrance” either to “relativise German guilt” for,

“National Socialist crimes against humanity”,

or, on the other side, to coldly justify Dresden’s destruction as punishment for that guilt. Good remembrance, the President explained, is empathetic, honouring all who suffered as a consequence of war. It is healing, freeing people from self-pity and victimhood. I would be glad to know whether the Government agree with these principles of good remembrance.

This leads me to my final area of comment, which is the contrasting approach to remembrance displayed by a section—only a section, I should say—of the British press, which elicited comments from sections of the British public that were far from disciplined, empathetic or healing. The catalyst to these comments were the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury who, shortly before President Gauck spoke, said,

“as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow”.

It would have been not only an abnegation of spiritual responsibility to have failed on such an occasion to express regret and sorrow at the loss of so many lives, but an abandonment of human decency. His was not a judgment on the moral or military efficacy of the hard decisions that were taken in the heat of war when its end was not necessarily determined; nor was it any denial of the extraordinary bravery of the British and American airmen caught up in the conflict, with so many of them dying courageously for our freedom during the course of the war. It was a simple statement of compassion and sympathy, without which the commemorations would have been incomplete.

I have described the bombing of Dresden as a “wound of history”. The reaction to the most reverend Primate’s words in some quarters proved to me that it remains an open wound in our own land, as well as, of course, among some in Germany. I hope that this debate and the response of the Minister may help to heal that which still hurts here as well as there. I hope that it will also be an occasion to celebrate the length of the road towards reconciliation that has already been travelled by our nations. I hope that we will be ready to proclaim afresh to the world that the story of our nations over the last 70 years proves that peace is possible and that friendship is better than enmity.

***

Minister’s response:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): My Lords, in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry on securing this debate and thanking all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, I take the opportunity to commend the work of the Dresden Trust, of which the right reverend Prelate is an active member, as is my noble friend Lord Dykes. I also pay tribute to the work of the trust’s royal patron, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Kent, whose own significant contribution has done so much to foster reconciliation between the United Kingdom and Germany.

Today’s debate falls, of course, amid a series of important anniversaries as we approach the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of hostilities in the Second World War, marking the end of a devastating chapter of European history. I share the moving and thoughtful comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, calling on us all to note recent events in European history, and stressing that Europe must never again descend into war.

From the moment the war ended, a new path opened: a path towards reconciliation, not conflict; friendship, not enmity; and shared values, not bitter division. This path to reconciliation led to the twinning of Dresden and Coventry in 1959. Britain and Germany are now close allies, of course, with a relationship that has never been better. The upcoming state visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Germany in June is a powerful symbol of the value we place on that relationship.

These anniversaries take on even greater significance when we consider that they may be our final opportunities to remember our past with those who witnessed the events at the time. In that spirit, I was grateful to hear from my noble friend Lady Sharples about her contemporary memories and her support for reconciliation.

As noble Lords have outlined so movingly, aerial bombardment of British and German cities during the Second World War caused destruction and loss of life on an immense scale. Cities from Leipzig to London and Hamburg to Bristol suffered terrible damage, but it is the magnitude of the devastation to Coventry and Dresden that gives our remembrance particular resonance. My noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Shipley reminded us of the historical context in which the devastation of Coventry and Dresden took place. My noble friends Lord Dykes and Lord Shipley reminded us eloquently of the rationale behind and the need for remembrance.

It is difficult for those who have grown up in a Europe of peace and prosperity to comprehend the scale of the suffering or the legacy it left. Nevertheless, we have a solemn duty to pass our remembrance and our reflection on to the younger generation to ensure that these terrible events are neither forgotten nor repeated. It is right that we show our recognition of all those who survived such horrific nights in cities such as Dresden and Coventry as a consequence of the struggle to rid Europe of the forces of National Socialism.

The right reverend Prelate asked whether the Government might consider their approach to the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche, which takes place in October this year. We have not taken any decision on this matter but I will certainly take his remarks into consideration when we do so.

My noble friend Lord Lexden referred in particular to the role of British airmen. It is important that we all recognise the contribution of the young men of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom died, and the heroic sacrifice they made to liberate Germany and Europe from the Nazi regime.

It is also right that such an important anniversary should be marked by the United Kingdom in an appropriate way. That is why, at the invitation of Mayor Orosz of Dresden, His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent joined others, including the federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, in the Frauenkirche on 13 February to commemorate this sombre event in the city’s history. As a member of the Dresden Trust, His Royal Highness is a much respected figure in Dresden for the tireless work he has undertaken in support of reconciliation over the past 20 years. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, I recognise the resolve of Mayor Orosz and her colleagues to lead the commemoration in ways that served the purposes of peace and reconciliation.

I am also particularly grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his participation in the service of remembrance, as well as to the members of the Dresden Trust, not least the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, for providing such an appropriately strong presence from the United Kingdom at the commemoration in Dresden. Through the presence of His Royal Highness, the most reverend Primate and Her Majesty’s ambassador to Berlin, the UK played a prominent role in the commemoration—one that was greatly welcomed and appreciated by our German hosts.

The relationships we have formed with our former adversaries enable us to join together and remember all the victims of war while commemorating specific events. This was underlined by President Gauck on 13 February when he said that,

“we will never forget the victims of German warfare, even as we remember here and now the German victims”.

In answer to the right reverend Prelate, we agree with President Gauck’s principles of good remembrance. I recall that, having had the opportunity to hear him at an earlier occasion when I visited Dresden and the Frauenkirche—and, separately, Coventry—those were the very thoughts that underpinned my own reflections.

It is right that former adversaries and their descendants continue to work with each other to remember the suffering caused by war and to learn from the past. We will see the same spirit of remembrance and reconciliation as we approach the commemorations of VE Day and VJ Day later this year. I return to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bach: we must never again let ourselves descend into war against our colleagues across western Europe. It is in that spirit that I hope we will inspire all those alive today and in the future to work to end conflict around the world. This House takes its duties very seriously. In its debates in recent months when it has observed some of the disturbing events in countries close to Russia, I know that this House has reflected carefully on what war really means and what we need to do to avoid it, and then to remember what it causes.