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Seeing the War from Abroad

Robert R. Thompson

No one can sit in this conference and be unaware of the U.N's guiding principle: the need for peaceful settlement of global conflicts.

Heidelberg Germany, Sunday March 23, 2003. with six of my students, I sit in the cavernous auditorium of Heidelberg's venerable Old University. We wait, along with 800 other students and faculty advisors from around the globe, for the opening ceremonies of the 2003 Harvard World Model U.N. Conference. Heidelberg University, founded in 1386, is Europe's second oldest university. The small city of Heidelberg (population about 140,000) nestles among steep, rolling hills, and straddles the banks of the Neckar River. Besides the University, the city, which dates back to the 12th Century, is also known as the location of the stunningly beautiful ruins of medieval Heidelberg Castle. Built between the 13th and 17th Centuries, the picturesque, rugged Castle ruins look like something out of a Hollywood film. They dominate a steep hill overlooking the city, and are one of Europe's most popular tourist attractions.

Only a few days old, the Iraq war seems to overshadow the charming old city and the model U.N. conference. We are at a meeting geared towards peace, and war has just begun. The small city of Heidelberg has, over its long history, suffered greatly from war. During the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, the city and surrounding areas were attacked and destroyed many times. The Palatinate-French War of Succession of 1650 brought more destruction to Heidelberg. In this conflict the castle was destroyed and the town razed. The town was rebuilt, but the castle was never again habitable, and stands empty above the town today as a symbol of war's desolation.

Indeed, over the last millennium much of Europe has suffered the "scourge of war" which, in 1945 after World War II, the real United Nations was founded to prevent. Religious wars, dynastic wars, territorial wars � from the Middle Ages to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, war have ravaged Europe and decimated its population. Heidelberg is a most appropriate venue for a United Nations conference.

My students and their international peers are about to embark on a week's worth of committee sessions, all geared to confronting the wide array of challenging issues the United Nations faces on a daily basis. Each college or university delegation, from whatever home nation, represents a different nation from that home country. And so all are here together in Germany as representatives and citizens of their home country, while portraying the delegates of another country. If they are properly prepared, they are as familiar with their assigned nation as if they truly lived there. No one can sit in this conference and be unaware of the U.N's guiding principle: the need for peaceful settlement of global conflicts.

The students await the opening ceremonies with a touch of opening night jitters. They will soon be working closely with their fellow students, debating, discussing, and negotiating difficult issues. Also, American students in particular, whether they support or oppose the war, wonder about their reception at the conference, as they are guests in a city and country where the people are deeply opposed to the war. All in attendance wonder about the Iraq war's influence over the deliberations about to commence. As a professor of politics, I am intrigued by this chance to observe European reaction to the war with Iraq.

The huge auditorium where the opening ceremonies are about to take place is about two stories high. Behind the speaker's dais four long, narrow flags extend from ceiling to floor, two on each side of the hall: on one side the German and the European Union flags, and on the other, the flags of the United Nations and the United States. A worker appears on a catwalk high above the floor, where the flags are hanging on a long pole across the top of the stage, and they extend down toward the floor. All eyes are on the worker, as there is nothing else to watch at the moment.

He walks over to the American flag and begins to pull it up and untie it. What, we ask, is going on? Are they removing the American flag? Is this an anti-war protest? As we see the flag pulled up, some in the audience gasp, others begin to applaud. It must be a protest; why else remove the U.S. flag as the ceremony is about to begin? But, it seems that we have overreacted. This is not, after all a protest. Someone has decided, we never learn why, to place together the country flags, Germany and America, and the organizational flags, the EU and the UN. But the audience's immediate assumption that this was an act of protest demonstrates a powerful awareness of the war as backdrop to the conference deliberations, and of the criticism of America now taking place around the world.

The opening ceremony finally begins. And although the flag switching was not a political statement about the war, our German hosts, in their opening statements, soon make clear, in a polite but firm fashion, their strong views on the war. Sporting a fiery red blazer Mrs. Beate Weber, Lady Mayor of Heidelberg and member of the ruling Social Democratic Party, speaks first. In a few pithy, dynamic remarks she notes the importance of the U.N. to finding solutions for avoiding conflict. Nations that ignore the U.N. and act on their own imperil the world. "The war that we now see," she concludes, "is the wrong solution!" Loud applause echoes through the hall. We look above the speaker's dais � yes, the US flag, as they saying goes, is still there.

Mr. VLR I Wolfgang Stockl speaks next. He is Director for Economic and Development Affairs in the United Nations Department of the German Federal Foreign Office. That is, he is a liaison between the German government and the U.N. In his talk, he expresses the view that the current crisis over America's war against Iraq threatens the future of the U.N. And he hopes the young people at the conference will demonstrate that people still believe in the U.N., and they will "show the world that the U.N. will survive the crisis." The last speaker's title is as long and ponderous as his demeanor, and his speech.

Professor Klaus Landfried is the President of the Conference of Rectors and Presidents of Universities and other Higher Education Institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany. In his speech, he does not specifically mention the United States. But as he speaks on a topic Germans are all too familiar with � power and the abuse of power � it is clear to whom his remarks are addressed. The hall is silent as he delivers what seems much like a sermon. He warns that those who hold power too often think that power and hegemony is all that they need to dictate to the world. But, he goes on, perhaps thinking of the huge American flag hanging behind him, some who "have power (think this) means you need not learn. But," and he pauses to look out over the audience, possibly thinking, too, of his country's history, "this does not last long."

Was this a reprimand? In a way I suppose that it was. But, more importantly, we have seen that world events seem quite different as we look back at the U.S., rather than out at the world from within our own comfortable confines. Europeans do not like this war. Europeans have known too much war; even the Cold War's end did not mean the end of European conflict, which again exploded between 1991 and 1999 in the Balkans. The Professor argues against the seductive attractions of power; we must, he says, work within the U.N., in both this student conference and in the real world. Nations must eschew the overly simplistic use of blunt force. The perspective is definitely different here in Heidelberg than it is in the U.S. This perspective will infuse the conference, as well as our time in this often fought over German city.

The words of the previous night shadow us. But the conference proceedings, and our jaunts around this sparkling little city, take place at what seems, both literally and figuratively, a great distance from the war. The war does pervade the conference deliberations, but the students proceed in a workmanlike and dedicated fashion. One senses that they will make peaceful conflict resolution work. Meanwhile, one gets a sense of the city gearing up for the tourist season, sweeping winter away, and sprucing up the old buildings. Undoubtedly, the Germans are glad that, as one newspaper says, "This is not our fight." Still, each day as we leave our hotel for the conference, it is clear that the war is on the minds of some Heidelbergers.

We travel from our hotel, switching from tram to bus at one end of a long and winding pedestrian mall. This mall wends its way through Heidelberg's old town to the University. The busy transfer point at the near end of the mall is located on a wide plaza named Bismarkplatz. This Plaza is named after Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor of "Blood and Iron" who, through war and shrewd diplomacy, hammered Germany's disparate pieces together into one nation during the 1870s. And, ironically enough, it is here that a peace information center is set up.

This "Peace Plaza" stretches across the wider plaza, and is manned by friendly and diligent young people. They don't care what one's nationality is as long as each person signs on to their petitions. Each day the Peace Plaza shifts, changes, swells, and shrinks-as though it was a living creature, or a continuously fluctuating piece of performance art. One day there is a large peace symbol dominating the plaza, and on another afternoon a smaller, simple "No War" sign is the center of the display. A wall of wooden sticks snakes around the area, each signed by someone and added to the daily lengthening fence of sticks.

There is no shouting, no verbal protests, no accosting of passersby. The ever-changing peace center is vibrant. But it is not what one would consider protest on a grand scale. If one walks away, down the pedestrian mall, the peace signs and peace posters disappear around the corner, and fade into the distance. One is again in a bustling but quiet (unless it's the tourist season) university town. The winding streets draw one in. Old churches appear at the juncture of the streets with other plazas, where merchants have sold their wares for over 400 years. War seems far away, as perhaps it did to other long gone merchants � until war descended upon the city to destroy their businesses, homes, and families.

The conference is over. We have a day to sleep in, relax, and sample the charms of medieval Heidelberg. I get up early and head towards the castle. I traverse the winding streets of the Old Town, and head down towards the Neckar River and out across the 17th Century Old Bridge to get a more panoramic view of the castle on the hill above. Heidelberg's bridge is not as old, famous, or distinctive as Prague's medieval Charles Bridge in the Czech Republic, which crosses over the larger Vlatava River. Also, unlike the Charles Bridge, this bridge was destroyed right at the end of World War II in March 1945 and rebuilt in 1947. This reminder of war, detailed on a plaque on one of the bridge towers, remains with me as I look back and up the rolling hill where the castle ruins stand.

It is a chilly morning, and the sun has just begun to burn off the mist rising from the river. The mist drifts up the hill towards the castle, and hangs like an opaque curtain shrouding the ruined battlements. Perhaps this is what the castle looked like to those approaching from the river 400 years ago. The climb to the castle is long, steep, and hot as the sun emerges and the mist dissipates. As I start my climb I am, however, pulled back momentarily to the present. On a house at the bottom of Castle hill some wag has hung a bed sheet banner � more a wry comment than a protest statement, and I can't help but smile. It says, "Mr. Bush-Please Don't Bomb the Castle!"

At this early hour, the castle has just opened and there are only a few people around. I wander somewhat aimlessly and leave my map in my pocket. Everywhere I look are broken battlements and ruined walls. Their windows mark the location of rooms that were there so long ago. I climb higher, and am surrounded by crumbling, yet stately and thick ancient walls. I can see down to the river flowing below, and to the church spires and red slate roofs of the Old Town's houses. I wonder what it was like to be on this spot as the armies swept into Heidelberg, either in 1618 or in 1945. I close my eyes, and I hear them, the screams, the explosions, the killing. I can also imagine the proud castle being blown to bits around me.

During the last millennium, all of Europe has known and suffered enormously from the scourge of war. There were no organizations dedicated to peace, or only a weak one such as the United Nations' precursor, the League of Nations. Now since World War II's end, a new Germany, and a new Europe, have grown slowly and laboriously, in tandem with the post-war development of the U.N. No one takes war lightly. But to many in this city, country, and continent where I am visiting, we Americans often do seem to accept war too easily. And to stand on this spot is to truly see the war begun in Iraq only a few days before this trip in a different light, and with the perspective of Europeans, they who have known too much of war.

Ultimately one must come here to Europe and see how the aftermath of war looks. Many miles north of here my father swept through Germany with the Third Armored Division in 1945. He experienced a small part of World War II's destruction of Europe. In a way he, and his fellow American soldiers learned what those who now live below the ancient Heidelberg castle know. It is what the students who came here to portray United Nations' delegates can learn.

And, perhaps, in a kind of reverse socialization, what these students learn will influence their elders; notably, their elders in the Bush administration. Even before the war with Iraq, as far back as the Administration's first days in office in 2001, the Bush Administration's belief was clear that the United Nations was no longer a major player in the international sphere. On diverse issues such as the environment, land mines, and youth soldiers, the Bush people chart their own course.

The Iraq war is now over. The same unilateralism that drove the Bush Administration's march to war, without the sanction of the U.N. Security Council, remains in control. Reuters reports (21 April, 2003) that debate grows over the U.N.'s involvement in Iraq's rebuilding. So far, the Bush Administration acknowledges only that, the report notes, the U.N. "has a role to play". And another debate roils the US/U.N. relationship. The U.N. Security Council's desire for U.N. weapons inspectors to go back to Iraq, now that the war is ended, is blocked by the Bush administration's unwillingness to let them back into the country. This is a convoluted issue, which involves weapons inspections, and the lifting of the sanctions on Iraq. But the Bush Administration presumes automatically against the U.N.'s utility, as it has in the past.

These students attending the U.N. Conference and their peers are very aware that global politics are complex and frustrating. Yet they can now see more than ever the need for diplomacy and the negotiation of these complex issues within the forum of the U.N. They have learned that, to paraphrase the 17th century English poet John Donne, no nation "is an island". And they know that people may debate the justification for war, and be wary of the idea of peace at any price, yet remember Winston Churchill's dictum, "There never was a good war, or a bad peace."

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