Cold War reconciliation alive and well …
There is an organisation based in Germany that most British people will never have heard of but which has become a symbol for peace and reconciliation around the world. It’s a bit like VSO or the Peace Corp in that it enables people, mostly young people, to do voluntary work around the world in areas of need. The difference is that it was formed 13 years after the end of the Second World War, during the Cold War when Germany was divided into East and West. Its stated aim at that time was to atone for the ‘unmeasurable suffering’ inflicted on people by Germany during the Second World War.
This year the organisation, originally known as Aktion Sühnezeichen (Action Reconciliation in English) and now rebranded as Action Reconciliation for Peace, marked its 60th anniversary. It has extended its mission to include fighting racism, discrimination and social exclusion around the world. A few days ago I was at a reception at the German Embassy in London to mark the anniversary.
… despite the world’s divisions
That it has survived at all is amazing. For one thing, at the height of the Cold War, calls for peace and reconciliation fell on largely deaf ears. For another, young Germans from the former German Democratic Republic were only able to travel to other countries behind the Iron Curtain – and even that was not easy. So the first group of young volunteers carried out work in Holland and came from West Germany only, thus unintentionally highlighting the divisions of the world.
In addition, in 1958 memories of the war were still very much alive. The founder of Aktion Sühnezeichen, a German priest called Lothar Kreyssig, had hoped to send volunteers to countries such as Russia, Poland and Israel where, he said, people had suffered the most. But for some years these countries were reluctant to issue invitations to young Germans. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, Aktion Sühnezeichen itself was forced to divide into two – East and West.
But despite the difficulties, Aktion Sühnezeichen has flourished. ‘Nowadays,’ it says, ‘due to generational change, volunteers do not act from a feeling of personal guilt, but rather from the conviction that they want to make a positive contribution toward a more peaceful, just and tolerant world.’
My small role in the work of Aktion Sühnezeichen
So why was I at this birthday reception. Many years ago I was one of Aktion Sühnezeichen’s few British volunteers. Along with a group of young British men and women I helped with the reconstruction of a Church hospital in Dresden which had been partially destroyed during the bombing raid of 1945. The project was organised in this country by Coventry Cathedral.
The story of this project is told in Stepping Off the Map: Memories of a Cold War Adventure. The political machinations behind it are recounted in a book based on my PhD thesis, Communing with the Enemy: Covert Operations, Christianity and Cold War Politics in Britain and the GDR.
Three young Aktion Sühnezeichen volunteers attended the London reception. We must work together for a better world, one of the young women told guests – echoing the idealism of my Dresden project group.
Indeed. The sentiment is music to my ears. But nevertheless, the question remains: how far have we come?