He was emotionally shocked when he found his first dead body. “The fact that they are lying here, unburied, unknown soldiers”, moves the young Russian deeply. The remains of a man from an unmarked grave lie in front of him and a group of other “searchers”, as they call themselves, who dig for fallen soldiers from the Second World War close to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). They don’t know anything about him yet, not even his nationality.
The searchers are volunteers. The “Great Patriotic War” has been over for 75 years. The fact that people are simply buried Russian soil, unofficially and unknown, and unremembered – that alone motivated this Russian to join “searchers”.
What an amazing testimony of human greatness in the midst of a world full of violence and ridiculous banalities. What an amazing testimony of the strength of the human heart this man radiates. We humans can also be like that, I think as I listen to him, unless some imperious idea kills compassion: that we are “God’s own nation”, a “chosen people”, on the “right side of history”, or belong to a superior “race”, and so on. Recent history has produced many varieties of this striving for power.
We humans can also be like this young Russian who thinks of the human being. It is within our nature. It is only a question of how we choose to live our human nature.
This “seeker” is not wealthy, you can see that. But he has enough to live. And he does not regret giving something to others. It is something more precious than power and money that drives him across the Russian steppes and over the blood-soaked battlefields of Stalingrad: It crushes his heart that the dead are forgotten. They should at least be given back their names. Later the parents of the dead man were identified, and their son was rightfully buried. The dead man has his name back.
At the Russian’s words, my thoughts wander back to childhood when one begins to see everything with somewhat more sceptical eyes than before when evil spirits still lived in the walls of the dark cellar and invisible forces were omnipresent. At that time, we had Protestant religious instruction with Pastor Hartlieb who once tried to make us understand what “eternal life” is. We young people wanted an answer to this question: How should the finite, mortal human being imagines what is eternal, what is infinite?
“You know,” began the tall, broad man in his robe and bands with great seriousness, “when you lose your father or your mother or someone close to you whom you love very, very much, you never forget that person. Do you? That dear person will always live on in you. But it is a different ‘life’ from when that person was alive, flesh and blood. Nevertheless, he is alive in you. And I believe that ‘eternal life’ means that just as each of us does not forget those whom he loves and who pass away, that in exactly the same way, but to a much greater extent, the infinitely kind God does not forget any of us human beings who have ever been born and will ever be born, even if that person has died. That is how great his goodness is. Because we are his children and because every human being is born innocent and therefore somewhere always lovable as this creature of God. Even though he may have gone down bad paths later in life.” Pastor Hartlieb, who died, still lives as a part of me today, lives his image of “eternal life” and what it has made of me. This pastor awakened something new in me at that time: people must not be forgotten. I never thought about that before.
I was introverted for days after that religious lesson, thinking about who among those I knew would not be forgotten.
I have never forgotten my school friend Gabi, ever since she played Mother Mary so lifelike – although she was not yet a mother! – and shed motherly tears when she protected her baby Jesus from the Herod’s henchmen in the nativity play in such a lifelike way that it didn’t even occur to you that her tears could be an act! I haven’t forgotten my good-natured school friend Otto. Principal Bauer beat him through the corridors of the school because of some foolishness, past the open classrooms where our hearts contracted and no one followed the teacher any more. I wonder who actually could forget Principal Bauer? The two people who saved my life as a young student, I have never forgotten them beyond their deaths.
The founder of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, answered the question of who would be forgotten by posterity and who would not: Those would be immortal among us humans who left behind contributions to humanity for the good of the human community. The millennia-old Chinese humanist Confucius, whose descendants still live as a large family in a valley with his tomb, is such an immortal. When asked by a student what compassion was, Confucius replied: “charity”. The founder of Christianity came later and also gave humanity this immortal gift of charity and hope. I personally remember a craftsman who paused while repairing damaged water pipes in his community because he realised that the pipes had been doing their job for three generations: “I admire my ancestors,” he said, “that they worked so far ahead without any personal benefit. They thought not only of themselves, but always of those who came after them.” Alfred Adler called this attitude “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” (sense of community/community spirit).
Nothing is more lacking in our time, driven by the desire for power, than this humane attitude in thinking, feeling and acting: Everything that is individual and everything that is political lives from whether it is for the person or against him. We could all live like that Russian who cannot stand the fact that people are forgotten. He is a human being like us. A different country. The same compassionate nature.
The great thinker of humanity Johann Gottfried Herder, who died on 18 December 1803 in Weimar, sought an alliance between progressive intellectuals and the “common” people: “You philosopher and you plebeian: make a covenant to become useful.” Humanitarianism could not live without a closeness to the people and an interest in the peculiarities of the people and the peoples – with heart and mind, Herder said. “I must speak to the people in their language, in their way of thinking, in their sphere” and educate “with philosophical spirit the human being in self-thinking and in the feeling of virtue” as well as “the patriot, the citizen who acts there”. This is what Herder’s “How can the truths of philosophy become more general and useful for the best of the people” is telling us.
Herder’s humanitarian thinking belongs to the unfortunately forgotten cultural heritage of the German people. But one should not complain about oblivion. For Herder’s work is an immortal gift and an unredeemed legacy to posterity. And that is us. •
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