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The 36th Mission
He spent his tour of duty bombing German cities and made it home only to discover he could never leave the war behind him. Then, a lifetime later, he found a way to make peace.
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
Mayor City of Geilenkirchen Federal Republic of Germany July 16, 1987
Dear Mr. Clark:
Thank you for your letter in which you address the inhabitants of the city of Geilenkirchen. . . .
May I tell you today that your letter called forth some amount of surprise here but has also left behind an indelible impression.
You express your regret that innocent people died as victims in the bombing of our city and beg our forgiveness as far as you were involved in dropping the bombs.
This is an extraordinary gesture as well as a praiseworthy gesture. You are apologizing for a happening for which you were in no way responsible and, in the last resort, could not have prevented either. Basically you—as all soldiers—were yourself a victim of that disastrous war. It is all the more to your credit that you are not indifferent to the fate of our citizens and have been dealing with it in your mind to this very day.
We are all called upon to learn from the agonizing past and to draw from it correct conclusions for our own times. If this recognition prevails, then the serious wounds that the war inflicted will not have been in vain. The population of Geilenkirchen, too, experienced a great deal of distress and misery during the war and post-war years. After the evacuation the residents returned to a city that was 72 percent razed to the ground. Most had escaped with only their bare lives. With diligence and ceaseless determination to rebuild, over the following decades success came in removing the outward traces of the war. Grief for the loss of beloved family members, however, is still felt even today.
Every year on the national day of mourning in November we in Germany remember the millions of victims of war and tyranny in a special way. . . .
There is much to indicate that the animosities that shook the world to its very foundations in the first half of our century can be overcome forever if people try to approach each other. Reconciliation among the nations must begin with our own selves. If we are all willing to tread the path of compromise, togetherness, and mutual understanding, we are therewith contributing substantially toward lasting world peace.
Your letter, too, we consider to be this sort of token of goodwill and reconciliation.
For this reason I, as mayor of the city of Geilenkirchen, again wish to thank you most sincerely and trust that you will get over the disastrous happenings of the war and thus regain your peace of mind.
With kind regards.
Der Chef der Staatskanzlei des Landes Schleswig-Holstein July 3, 1987
Dear Mr. Clark,
Minister President Dr. Uwe Barschel has asked me to express to you his warmest appreciation for your letter to the Kiel citizens of May 16, 1987. Dr. Barschel is—as you may know—minister president of Schleswig-Holstein, the land of the Federal Republic of Germany of which Kiel is the capital.
“Allow me to say that we Germans have to ask forgiveness of other peoples.”
I was deeply moved by your letter. I have long considered what to answer you. Let me say these three things:
It was not your country which began the Second World War. It was National Socialist Germany, it was Hitler who chose the way of violence. Millions of innocent people died by his cold and mechanical will to destroy: soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children, who have done nothing but belonging to another nation, worshiping God in a different way, desiring another way of life but tyranny. Even the fate of his own people eventually did not matter to Hitler.
For us the 8th of May 1945 has thus been the end of a going astray in German history. At the same time, there was the seed of hope for a better and more peaceful future in this date of history. This hope became reality. Today the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America have an undestroyable common ground. As defender of freedom America was an enemy of National Socialists in Germany. As the friend of freedom America became a friend of democratic Germany. As a soldier you have contributed in re-establishing freedom in the western part of our country.