Guest Column: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

THE Soviet army rolled over Germany in 1945. My home province, in the extreme east of the country and a direct neighbour of Soviet territory, became Russian and Polish. 19th century nationalism and chauvinism had torn Europe apart.

As a small boy, three years old, I became a refugee, without a home, the youngest of five children, brought up by my widowed mother — my father lost in Adolf Hitler’s war against Russia, a country so vast, nobody had ever conquered it, neither Napoleon Bornaparte nor Adolf Hitler. This war, the Second World War, left us homeless, turned us into orphans, migrants seeking refuge on alien soil.

I grew up feeling a deep horror of any kind of war or warfare and armed violence. I observed American and British bombers dropping from the sky their lethal load of bombs, rockets and grenades. The city where we had landed after crossing borders from east to west consisted just of ruins and devastation. After three wars between France and Germany in less than 100 years, we did not want to see another war.

This city was rebuilt, and is now more wonderful than it had ever been. Let it not be bombed to smithereens again!

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“No more war!”

Nationalist fanaticism was out, a new order, the European Union, was in. The common market and the economic union was supposed to bind European nations, indeed of the whole world together in the United Nations, and thus to make war impossible. The new leaders of France, Italy and even defeated Germany agreed: “No more war!”

Greedy, power-hungry fascists and anti-semites were no longer in power, but Christian leaders determined to bring back peace to their homelands.

I came to help build a young Church in Africa, and free society from racism and fratricidal violence. Nationalism and a people’s war were considered the answer to colonial oppression.

At the moment, I am back with my family, and meet old school friends and colleagues. It is a time of reflection and remembrance of the last 50 years, in Europe, as well as in Africa.

I am alarmed that the slogans: “No more war”, “No more nationalism and chauvinist selfishness” are beginning to fade away and lose the power to convince. The young generation has never known war. What was built in 50 years, a political and economic union of 28 European states, is no longer so attractive, the enthusiasm of my generation for it is gone. “Brexit” (Britain to make an exit) is threatening unity and constructive cooperation.

Extreme right-wingers shed hot tears and walk the streets in fascist anger to bring back nationalism and poisonous chauvinism, put up fences and walls again, only 30 years after the collapse of the infamous Berlin Wall.

New fascist parties in so many countries refuse entry to political and economic refugees. The “United States of Europe” seems now an unrealistic dream, more remote from reality than ever before. “Make America strong again. We need rearmament and more weapons” is the new slogan, and Russia, while free from Communist tyranny, is still far away from a new democratic order. They long for the old glory of the past which was achieved by endless wars and bloody conflicts.

Asian nations building up an ever bigger arsenal of nuclear weapons to threaten the rest of the world. Are we to invent even more sophisticated and more lethal weapons for Word War Three?

Whether it is the glory of the American Wild West, the superiority of American military technology or the sentimental longing for the return of British imperial glory, nationalism and fascism frighten me.

Nationalist propaganda, noisy and terrifying in so many parts of Europe just now, calls for the dismantling of the European Union in favour of national sovereignty and very selfish policies which undermine the achievement of peace over the last 50 years. It frightens me and spoils my holiday with my sisters and brothers. Our refugee past is always present in our minds, and we can never forget.

Where does this experience leave us in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa and on the continent as a whole? Can we learn something from the failures and political disasters of our neighbours north of the Equator and the Mediterranean Sea?

In four weeks’ time, I will be back in Zimbabwe. Friends and colleagues will ask: What have you brought us? Do I have a good message for them? Nation States obsessed with safeguarding the power of their political class without regard for the common good, and the welfare and prosperity of Africa as a whole, will soon be in violent conflict with each other again. National sovereignty is the idol which we worship, much to the detriment of “united nations and international unions”.

A country that does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbours will not be recognised as a sovereign State itself. If our leaders do not respect the citizens as sovereign owners of the land, and do not preserve their lives, as protected by the Constitution and bill of rights, the country they lead will not have its sovereignty respected and preserved, either.

The vision of African unity and good neighbourliness among nations promises a future full of hope. But nationalistic pride will destroy countries where there is much antagonism and strife between regions and parties. Brexit? No, we want the unity of a prosperous Europe. For us, more weapons systems, more soldiers, more military force will not serve the common good and give our children education and work. Where there is no determination to bring about reconciliation and peace, we cannot hope for workplaces for our children and an adequate income for their future families.

Our future does not lie in Europe, but in ourselves, and salvation will be found in our own Africa. I went to see families and friends. I was not trying to seek refuge in the old country. Neither do I believe that Europe or America are the fulfilment of our dreams.

Our skills and our learning, our intelligence and our creative ideas will transform Africa, not the prosperity found among aliens overseas. I came 50 years ago to bring a new spirit to this country which wants to stand on its own feet again in freedom. I have not given up my project. A “Brexit” closes a door, it does not open new ones.

A united Africa, and a Zimbabwe where we are good neighbours and share our troubles (and do not build walls and put up fences as symbols of mutual hostility), give us confidence, trust and courage.

Europe was devastated, millions having perished on the battle fields, during 100 years of war and bloodshed; peace and unity, for example, in the European Union, restored the old continent in 50 years, admired by the whole world and attracting immigrants from “failed States”.

I hope we can avoid a “Zimexit” and isolation. We should, instead continue reconstruction on the ruins of past wars and heal their wounds.

Fr Oskar Wermter is a social commentator. He writes here in his personal capacity.