Desmond Tutu: Why we all have a responsibility to support Flanders Peace Field Project
Published 04/02/2014 | 02:30
On the occasion of the launch of the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field programme, I recall one of my favourite quotations, though it happened during a much smaller Truce in 1915, and comes from a German soldier named Richard Schirrmann.
He wrote: "When the Christmas bells sounded . . . something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities . . . and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over."
Schirrmann pondered over this incident and wondered whether "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other."
He became the founder of the German and International Youth Hostelling Movement. Schirrmann's vision must continue to be an inspiration to the Flanders Peace Field and Messines Peace Village in the months and years ahead, as we welcome the youth of the world.
It is indeed wonderful that we are now at a point where we can begin to launch a carefully planned programme of activities to commemorate the miracle of the 1914 Christmas Truce.
The Christmas Truce is, as the British historian Piers Brendon so eloquently reminds us: "a moment of humanity in a time of carnage . . . what must be the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas since those notable goings-on in Bethlehem.'
A lot of hard work has gone into reaching this day. It began on the 28 August 2008 when my friend from Ireland, Don Mullan, travelled to Flanders to see if he could find the field where the famous game of football took place on the first Christmas Day of WWI. What he found was a much richer tapestry which we are all invited to weave.
The first official meeting of the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field project was held in Dublin in February 2009, which I presided over. It was hosted by the GAA at Croke Park and involved Irish government representatives, the European Union, churches, sporting bodies, schools and NGOs. I was particularly delighted to welcome representatives of the Messines Peace Village.
At that meeting, Don set out his vision for an ambitious project that included the creation of the Flanders Peace Field. I called for support for this initiative with key diplomatic missions, the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace, UNESCO and representatives of US congress.
And given the background out of which this wonderful initiative has emerged, I have already described it in a letter to the Mayor of Messines – and do so again today – as a gift of the island of Ireland Peace Process to the European project and world peace. For that is what it is!
I am heartened by the generous response of Belgian people to partner this wonderful initiative and to help carry it to success.
I commend the Federal and Flemish governments, and the governments of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive, for their support to date. It requires much more support and, as patron of the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project, along with my Brazilian colleague, the great Pelé, we now appeal to all diplomatic missions to ask your governments to join us in creating what has the potential to be the jewel in the crown of WWI legacy projects – a truly life-giving peace memorial.
The world has too many war memorials. We need life-affirming ones that inspire our young people to become peacemakers, reconcilers and, what we in Southern Africa call "ubuntu" – a universal truth through which human beings are imbued and motivated by a sense of our common humanity.
And that's what those ordinary soldiers of WWI who participated in the Christmas Truce discovered.
Through singing Christmas carols and folk songs together, helping one another to bury fallen comrades, by participating in joint religious services, sharing tea and coffee, beer and wine, exchanging gifts and showing photographs of their loved ones, and kicking footballs up and down No Man's Land, they realised they were fellow human beings, trapped in a seemingly unstoppable vortex of violence in which the vice grip of higher command gave them little option beyond, kill or be killed.
It is my hope that the UN and UNESCO will become more closely linked with the Flanders Peace Field initiative for it must become part of the cultural patrimony of humanity.
A gathering of multi-faith leaders at Flanders Peace Field, Messines, on December 6, 2014, will be a very important meeting of world leaders, and I am conscious that we have the responsibility to help set the tone for four years of WWI commemorations and to ensure they are not about the glorification of war, but rather, the glorification of international peace – that must be founded on global justice and human rights for all.
In memory of the 1914 Christmas Truce may I suggest we choose as our motto the words of Nelson Mandela who was born during the closing months of WWI?
Let us be inspired by the words of this great prophet of reconciliation and forgiveness:
"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate. And if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
DESMOND TUTU EMERITUS BISHOP OF CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA