As we let go of one year and begin another, it is good to give thanks for all that has been and to open ourselves with fresh hope and compassion to the future. The two things are connected. My final visit in Berlin this year for example was a way of paying tribute both to past inspiration and to its continuing living 'subversive memory'. For in the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery are the graves of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, among others commemorated at this Memorial to the Socialists. Other parts of the cemetery also house the graves of creative people, including the amazing artist Kathe Kollwitz. In some ways it is a sad place, not only as cemeteries typically can be, but also because of the failure of much of the vision and hard work of those buried there. Yet as the main commemorative stone has it Die Toten mahnen uns (The dead remind us), at their best, prompting us to renewing life and love.
My politics have never been quite those of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, but I have always admired their commitment to a better world, sacrificial solidarity with the poor and outcast, intelligence and vision. To lay a flower on each of their graves was thus for me to express a debt of gratitude and to pledge with others to renew their work in a new way. My guess is that, in Rosa Luxemburg's case for sure, if they had not been murdered by the Freikorps in Berlin in 1919, their work would have been betrayed by others, including those indeed like one or two of the East German communist party apparatchiks buried alongside them. For being of Polish birth and Jewish extraction, and a feminist socialist with a physical disability and a brilliant independent mind, Rosa was always an uncomfortable figure to so many. Her most famous words sum this up and remain a powerful challenge and inspiration, whatever group(s) we belong to:
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter. Not because of the fanaticism of "justice", but rather because all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effects cease to work when "freedom" becomes a privilege.
For those words alone my pilgrimage would have been worthwhile, but there is much more. For to me, Rosa stands for many more, living and dead, who continue to believe in, inspire, and work, for another kind of world, however we imagine what Christians like me call 'the kingdom of God'. And so, for the coming year, in the words of the anarchist poet Pietro Gori, in Primo Maggio, written in 1890:
Green May of humankind,
Give your courage and your faith to our hearts.
Give flowers to the rebels who failed
Their sight fixed upon the break of dawn,
To the bold rebel who fights and works
To the far-seeing poet who sings and dies.
Looking back on 2015, there have been several major events in my life's journey. One was most certainly my visit to Berlin. It was the culmination of 50 years of longing: beginning as a young child when, in the magazine Look and Learn, I read about the beauty and history of the city and its division with the Berlin Wall. The desire was immediately kindled one day to walk through the Brandenburg Gate - in peace and not, like so many, for glory born of violence - and along Unter den Linden (see left, my longing finally fulfilled). The Brandenburg Gate and its surrounds in themselves have enough tragic, and sometimes liberating, history to touch my European and historian's heart for ever. As a history student, I also studied so much German history that led me further to Berlin. For the city as a whole is a symbol of the great human longing for hope and renewal, as well as a location of some of the very worst aspects of the human soul. Reading Rory MacLean's brilliant book Berlin in the months before further deepened my quest. For my closest life partner, it understandably felt at times a 'heavy' city, full of such a legacy of pain and struggle. Yet, for me, it was an amazing, if sometimes chastening, journey at every turn. After all, as a life-long border-crosser, where else could a blessed imp be drawn?
One of my main highlights of visiting Berlin this year was the Kathe Kollwitz museum. An artistic genius, Kollwitz' life and work are inspiring examples of the German soul. She was an outstanding pioneer for women, with a profound social conscience and identity. A committed socialist and pacifist, who shared the life of the poor with her doctor husband in Berlin's struggles, not for nothing was she commissioned to create a powerful memorial to the murdered Karl Liebknecht. Tragically, her compassion for the victims of war and oppression and the strength of poor women, especially mothers, was embodied in her own sufferings over the loss of her son in the first world war. Removed from her leading role in German arts and culture by the Nazis, she was eventually evacuated from Berlin in 1943 as foreign bombs wreaked violence, including, soon, the destruction of her own family apartment with its photographs and mementos of loved ones. A week later her son's home was also destroyed during a bombing raid. Kollwitz tellingly wrote in her journal: "every war already carries within it the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed... That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness, and why my only hope is in a world socialism... Pacifism simply is not a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work." She died in 1945, 16 days before the end of the Second World War. Yet her transcendent art and inspiring hope, in and beyond suffering. lives on.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.