Seeking the Good Germans in Edith Cavell’s story

At the supermarket, I walked round dazed, feeling it sacrilege to walk aisles of tins after what I’d just been to. When asked what sort of day I’d had, I said – I’ve seen a woman tried and shot. Again.

This is part IV of Edith Cavell week.

I went to two others one woman shows, by JAC Intimate Productions and Broad Horizons, both again in Norwich’s Forum. And I’ve been to a talk and book signing “Faith Before the Firing Squad” by Catherine Butcher, as well as another exhibition at the Norfolk County archives, and words and music for Edith at St Peter Mancroft church – all still in Norwich.

I’ve seen the letter Edith’s mum got from Buckingham Palace after that firing squad. I’ve seen her copy of The Imitation of Christ with the prescient record of her own death. I heard she may’ve loved her cousin, to whom that book was inscribed.

Each thing I read or watch gives new information, some contradictory, some filling in a piece like a fat jigsaw. It’s all swirling about. But by the end of the week, much of it’s becoming familiar.

What’s missing still for me is that story; it is series of events more than a narrative.

Today I learned she was a fun loving woman. But Ediths of the stage seem as starched as those nursey sleeves of hers. She’s still not really in a relationship with anyone, although I know she picked up stray dogs and humans – I’m seeing a sort of magnetic compassion in Edith who built a family although she didn’t bear one herself. I felt myself wanting to meet the others in Edith’s story, for she interacts little – even with her own demons, as the premise of the Broad Horizon production promised.

The perspective I want to hear is that of the Germans. They are villains in this piece, but like the George Clooney and Cate Blanchett movie, I want to find Good Germans in this story.

What would have been better than doubling army subscription at home would have been for Edith’s death to change hearts of the German army and secret police. Yes I know what the Kaiser said. I know that a German rep laid a wreath at her London memorial for the first time this year. But what of a German’s change of heart?

What goes on in the heart of a Sgt Pinkoff or Lt Bergan? What kind of man was Pastor Le Seur who took her to the firing range and buried her? In Julia Ann Cooper’s play, Edith resists this German chaplain at first, and then sees it as her last life challenge. There is a good German. But he only got a part in one of the plays I’ve seen – the focus is on the Anglican chaplain he worked so hard to fetch.

I turn to the next war and to a German philosopher. Edith read several of these, as did her father at Heidelberg university. Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1960s that Nazi war criminal Eichmann was not debauched, but bland. His evil came through doing his duty without question. He never stopped to think and see people beyond what he had been told about them from his work and from the government. In Edith’s interrogator Pinkoff’s eyes, he too was following orders and doing his duty; Edith had broken the military code – even she agreed that – and this troublesome woman was rightly being stopped.

I’ve been thinking about how to stop such a machine – the duty, non thinking killing machine. What would I do if a foreign army came to occupy my country, as it has in the past, and as mine is doing now? I know that change of heart is the most powerful force for a literal revolution. I want to uncover a story of someone who was turned because of Edith and her friends. No I don’t mean they became Allied undercover agents. But that they saw a different way to live. That they couldn’t help but see her as a good human, not the enemy. That she was a woman doesn’t make her death more shocking, because men’s lives aren’t more expendable or less valuable.

I was angered that it was alleged that as a non mother, Edith’s death was acceptable. Who we have in our lives or what biological functions we’ve exercised does not give meaning or greater importance. Edith was caring for many – two young women, two dogs, her mum, her nurses. and those many, many men – not just those who escaped, but those Germans too, whom she noted stalked into town with weary, damaged feet.

As I continue my search for Good Germans, I state again the perceptive words of a more contemporary one who suffered at a German army in her own country – and the warning exhortation to never stop thinking, never stop seeing people as human, and never to put duty before humanity.

I have decided that I do admire Edith because that’s what she did with her duty. Her soldier saving was an easy extension to her nurses’ philosophy – help and save lives.

The keeper of the Swardeston Collection (Edith’s natal village) called her a Good Samaritan in the Norwich diocese magazine. Yes, but only when she was binding German wounds.

I wasn’t comfortable with the Joan of Arc suggestion. She did not lead her country into battle – though her death was used as a call to do so, I don’t think that was what Edith was about at all. I heard evidence from Catherine Butcher that Edith was passionately patriotic, walking out of the room when the Queen was insulted, so perhaps her famous quote was actually a deathbed revelation for her. But news or no, it was a powerful realisation to share with the world. And I will be wearing a badge with it on poppy day.

There are two versions of Edith’s final speech. I prefer the less used one. Not having hatred and bitterness is a negative statement. She also says she must not have it – not that she doesn’t. It is another duty, an ideal state. The other version recorded by Rev Gahan, the chaplain who met with her on her last evening, is that “…it is not enough to loves one’s own people. One must love all men and hate none.”

Still, she did not speak actively of love and forgiveness, still it is an ideal, not something she is actually doing.

It is there I want to leave Edith; and whatever I’ve said about allopathic medicine and propaganda, I do not think she intended to be used as a pawn and poster girl for either. She meant to do good, I think. I’d like to think that if she didn’t change any German hearts at the time, that those of that same ilk, of whatever uniform, could be changed now.

——

My vision for Edith’s old home                                                     

Edith provided a place of confidential safety when people were in need. There are already nursing homes named for her. I’d like the old vicarage or Cavell House in her natal village of Swardeston, Norfolk to be the Cavell house of Compassion and Contemplation; open to the public as a museum, to pray and meet, and also have a separate residential area with a warden – something like The Elsie Briggs House of Prayer in Westbury on Trym, Bristol, crossed with the Bronte parsonage and a safe house – for whatever the needs might be.

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