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Berlin: The Church of Remembrance, a timeless symbol against terrorism and wars

On December 19 a truck ploughed into the stalls of the Christmas market at high speed, killing 12 people. It was an act of blind violence directed against an established tradition of Germany’s high holidays, a short walk from the Gedächtniskirche. This place of worship was destroyed during the Second World War, and its ruins, even today, stand as a testimony of the primary value of peace and reconciliation between peoples

A month has passed since that tragic December 19, 2016: the horrifying Islamist terror attack that hit Europe, this time Berlin. Commentators highlighted the symbolic implication of the terror attack against the Christmas market, a lively and ancient Christian tradition in Germany. However, they failed to emphasize, and perhaps have not fully understood, the other symbol of the massacre in the heart of Berlin, on the Breitscheidplatz, near the Kurfürstendamm, one of the major streets of the German capital. On this square stands the famous Gedächtniskirche, the Church of Remembrance.

This church is viewed as symbolically encompassing the history of Germany and of Europe as a whole.

It was built in the late Nineteenth Century to celebrate the first Emperor of the new united Germany, William I. It was a majestic church, with mosaics covering 2,740 square meters, portraying the Emperor’s life and works. It was inaugurated on September 1, 1895, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the defeat of the French at Sedan, a gateway to Paris for the Prussians, which ushered in the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles. During the Second World War the church was largely destroyed by the bombing of November 23, 1943, and in 1945, during the last armed conflict fought in the capital of the Third Reich. Only the church entrance and a tower remained. After the war public authorities (the area of the city was located in the western part of Berlin) decided the building of a new church, entrusted to architect Egon Eiermann, to be erected on the ruins of the nave, the choir and transept, which had been destroyed.

But the ruins of the tower were preserved in remembrance of the war and of the destruction it caused. Thus it became a permanent testimony of the sufferings and horrors of any war. Inside the reconstructed part of the church, covered with blue glass window panels from Chartres, was placed a large cross, made with the nails recovered from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in England, destroyed by the German bombing of 14 November 1940. As in Berlin, the ruins of Coventry were preserved as a holy site, and a new monument was built next to it. The two churches were consecrated on the same day, May 25, 1962, as a sign of reconciliation. The symbol extended to Russia: in the Berlin church was placed the image of the Stalingrad Madonna, designed in December 1942 during the terrible battle by a German Pastor, Kurt Reuber, who fought in the war as a lieutenant. A copy of the drawing hangs in Coventry Cathedral.

We don’t know whether the terrorists were aware of this story of suffering and reconciliation.

Maybe they are not, although these death mongers are well aware of the power of symbols. But all the inhabitants of Berlin have knowledge of it. It is no coincidence that during a religious ceremony – with the participation of the leaders of all religions present in Berlin – Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirmed the determination of the people of Germany and of the rest of Europe to resist fear, to oppose war, and to promote reconciliation and peace.

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