When I visited Strasbourg Cathedral a couple of months ago, I was touched to see a memorial to American soldiers who had helped to liberate Alsace and its capital, Strasbourg, from Nazi control.
Strasbourg is just across the Rhine from Germany, and had been in dispute between the Germans and the French ever since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. I know next to nothing about that war, but I do know that Strasbourg had great symbolic importance for the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle from exile in England. He insisted that only French soldiers should liberate Strasbourg, and so it was. Strasbourg and its Cathedral had enough symbolic importance that Hitler himself had visited in 1940. Hitler declared that he intended the Cathedral to be a place of sanctuary for the German people, or possibly a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. But in the closing days of the war, while the Allies moved across France from Normandy toward Germany, French forces were assigned to recapture Strasbourg and above all to liberate the beloved Cathedral. Liberation took place on November 22, 1944.
The day we celebrate as Veterans’ Day is known as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day in many countries. It actually marks the end of World War I, which everyone hoped would be “the war to end all wars.” Sadly, it was not. But the guns of World War I fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The next year, the day was designated to honor veterans of all wars.
In the Cathedral, columns are still pocked with bullet holes. Was there actually a battle inside? I don’t know. The fighting was certainly fierce. But possibly the damage was more from the bombs that hit the Cathedral in August of 1944.
Yesterday in church, veterans were asked to stand and be recognized. In our congregation, there were about a dozen veterans, all white-haired. Then members were asked to call out the names of veterans they wanted to remember. Names were spoken from all corners of the church. Some of the voices were young and strong. Some were old and quavering. The people named could have filled the place by themselves. All those named had served their country with honor.
We might not all agree on the wisdom of sending American troops to the many places across the globe where they have been deployed. But we can agree that we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who are willing to serve their country. I think we can spare some sympathy for the men and women of other countries who have been drawn into war, too. Service people are committed to dangers other than war, too. As I write, I’m sure that American service people are among those rushing to provide aid after the catastrophic typhoon that just hit the Phillippines.
Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe.