November 13, 2011

Remembering the Civilian Cost of War

There is a raking light and a hint of frost in the air. Nobody has bothered to rake the leaves among the grave stones. The moss growing over the footpaths suggests desertion, a return to nature. A few early twentieth-century mausoleum facades stick out here and there among the hoary branches, fraktur engravings signalling a sense of self-importance that died with Weimar. One or two of the living are titivating, laying a winter rose for their family stone with cursive script. Death here is well organised. At the entrance to the graveyard is a florist. Directly across the street, a grave stone merchant. Adjacent to that, a large old-people’s home.

In the middle of this large suburban graveyard, a row of diminutive stone blocks hides among the fallen leaves. Nothing about them invites you to investigate. They are black, unadorned, inconspicuous: ignorable. But if you kick away the autumnal detritus you will discover that each stone bears the same date: April or May 1945. These people, mainly civilians, some of them without names, all perished during the fall of Berlin. Perhaps they met with disease, starvation, or a stray bullet. Who knows what privations they endured before the terminal date?

Remembrance Sunday in Berlin simply isn’t. Despite all of the recent moves to make the annual marking of the armistice about the general cost of war, the triumphalism of the victors still casts a pall. In any war, innocence is a grey area. People are caught up, swept along, killed, maimed, forgotten. Whatever their stories, the why of their deaths is filled with a futility that ought to move us. Wars, we expect, have a military cost. But among the celebrated fallen and the vanquished enemy lie the rest. I, for one, would like to remember them.


  1. Well said. Being an American, we don't have civilian costs to our wars (minus terrorist attacks) as we have had the fortune of never having to fight on our own ground in multiple generations. The exception, of course, being Hawaii in World War II. We tend to forget the length of war's arms.

  2. Total agreement with Turling. A very thought provoking post.

  3. Great Post, couldn't have said it better myself.

  4. The last sentence is very powerful, something that neatly sums up my thoughts on the subject.


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