What the world can learn from Münster

When I read the first news about the vehicle that drove into a café in the German town of Münster last Saturday I was shocked. Not because the incident happened – in a way I’m getting used to news like this but because of the place where it happened. I lived in Münster for five years between 2010 and 2015 and the place of the attack was only a maximum five minutes walk from my home and it’s a place I surely have passed over 100 times. I’m grateful that no one of my friends, who are still living there where injured or killed in the attack. In a way I was also relieved when it became clear that the perpetrator was neither a Muslim nor a refugee, because so it is harder to use the attack to spread Islamophobia and fears against refugees and asylum seekers (even if right wing activist where still trying to do so…).

A lot of people outside of Germany might not have heard about Münster before the attack or might not know a lot about it. And if they know something about Münster it might be that it’s Germany “bicycle capital”, that it has a large university, that it has a beautiful (destroyed and reconstructed) old town or that it won a price as one of the most liveable places in the world in 2004. Today I want to tell you the story of Münster as a place which has a long history of anti-radicalism and peace building – especially between faith communities.

Münster Town Hall: Von Florian Adler (schlendrian) – Eigenes Werk, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=334070

Münster exists since the time of Charlemagne and is home of a Roman-Catholic diocese since the year 800. Because of this long lasting history (Catholic) Christianity is still relatively dominant in Münster’s city culture and visible through a lot of (huge) churches all over the area. The first time Münster became really important for (world) history was in the year 1534. As part of the protestant reformation radical “Anabaptists” established a theocracy in Münster. Only a (united!) military force of Catholics and Protestants was able to establish the former order in the town after about one year of resistance. Of course neither the Anabaptist with their theocracy nor the military action by Protestants and Catholics a good example how to deal with differing religious views – but this experience and the remembrance of it might have helped the citizens to be very sceptical against any kind of extremism.

The next time Münster became important in world history – and this is probably the moment when Münster was most prominent in its long lasting history – was in 1648. After 30 years of war in Germany, in which all major European powers have been involved and more than 100 years of conflict as a result of the protestant reformation Münster and it’s neighbouring town in the north Osnabrück were the places were the Westphalian Peace treaty was signed. Being formally a war of religion (with strange coalition like the Catholic French king and the Protestant Swedish King fighting together against the Catholic Habsburg Emperor), the Peace treaty mainly ended the period of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics on the continent, together with giving important countries like the (Protestant) Netherlands, who had fought a 70 years war against (Catholic) Spain, or Switzerland (as a religious diverse country with Catholic and Protestant areas) their independence. The remembrance of this Peace treaty – one of the most important occasions in German/European history – is still very alive in Münster (not only because it is a good way to bring tourists to the town…).


The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648 By Gerard ter Borch – http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=337672

After the unification of Germany in 1871 under Bismarck the Catholics in Münster found themselves as a suppressed minority in the Protestant dominated state of Prussia and there were strong political conflicts between them and the central state, because they felt their religious rights were supressed. In this time it must have been very hard as a non-Catholic to live in this area, but the scepticism of the citizens of Münster towards the Prussian state and the strong Catholic tradition orientated towards Rome resulted in a much weaker (still too strong…) support for the Nazis in the elections during the Weimar republic, than in predominant Protestant areas. The support of the citizens gave the bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, during the Nazi regime the possibility to speak up against some of the crimes against humanity committed by the government and the Germans.

Clemens August Kardinal Graf von Galen By Domkapitular Gustav Albers († 1957) – Bildersammlung des Bistumsarchivs Münster, des Erbnehmers der Urheberrechte, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1684057

After the war the student dormitory that I lived in for five years was founded. This place is special, because the students living there are always 50% from Germany and 50% from abroad (and 50% male and 50% female…) and so people from all cultural backgrounds are living together under one roof. Run by the protestant church it is not a requirement to be Protestant or Christian or of any other particular faith or of any faith at all to live there. This concept creates a very special atmosphere and is from my point of view a good way to build good relationships and peace between people of different backgrounds. During my time in Münster there were a couple of occasions when right-wing extremists wanted to demonstrate in the town. At this occasions there were always huge crowds of people gathering to demonstrate for the rights of minorities, freedom and a social and democratic society. Usually there were far more then then times as many people demonstrating against the right-wing extremists than with them.

Knowing this long tradition of peacebuilding and anti-extremist behaviour it was not a surprise when in last autumn after the general elections in Germany it was announced that Münster was the only place in the whole of Germany where the far-right party AFD (Alternative for Germany), which stands mainly for anti-islam and anti-refugee populism, gained less than 5% of the total votes.

Coming back to the attack with the van last Saturday it was good to see that most citizens where ready to help, so that the police could thank them for their support afterwards and the hospitals could get so many blood donations in a short time that they had to send away people.

In my opinion the civic tradition of peace building and challenging any kind of extremism in Münster is a good example for all towns and cities in our world and maybe this story of a usually not very important (it’s not Berlin or Cologne or any other of the German cities) and it’s impact on world history can be inspiring for people else where in the world.


How political should interfaith engagement be?

This week I witnessed two short (very uncontroversial) discussions about the political element in interfaith dialogue. One was about Holocaust Memorial Day, which will be next week, and one about the engagement of faith communities and interfaith organisations against climate change. Having this in mind I want to reflect today about how political interfaith engagement can/should be. I thereby reflect only about the situation in Western democracies. The situation in other kind of states might differ in several points and is to complex to reflect it here.

Interfaith Engagement is always political

The word “political” comes from a time when there existed a lot of different City States (polis) in Ancient Greece. “Political” in its basic meaning is therefore something, that regards the “affairs of the cities” or of the community/society in a specific area.

Interfaith engagement how I experience it here in Scotland has always the aspect of serving the community: It is always about building peace and and a deeper understanding between different religious groups and that is in the end a way of serving the whole community. The Scottish government has realized this and is therefore funding the work of Interfaith Scotland, what I consider as a great example, that other governments in the world (Hello Germany!) should follow!

Furthermore have all the different faith traditions a tradition of political engagement. Be it in the way of building religious dominated states in history or presence or important contacts between representatives of religion and state. That’s completely logical, because the religions claim to be important for the whole live of their believers – and the social/political life is a part of this.

When is political engagement dangerous for interfaith dialogue?

Not every political engagement of partners in interfaith dialogue is good. Should a particular religious group have to close political connections to a political party it might damage their credibility. If religions want to be political in the above meaning – and from my point of view they have to – they should fight (peacefully in a democratical system) for their goals in society, whether they rather fit with the agenda of the government or the opposition.

Of course for an interfaith organisation like Interfaith Scotland that is even more difficult. What if two or more members or dialogue partners follow different political agendas? Well in this cases it is not possible that Interfaith Scotland supports one of the two agendas. It could only make a statement that shows the differences between its members. In general it would be dangerous, if political statements could be made with a simple majority in a vote, for example between the members of Interfaith Scotland or its board. It would be recognized if for example the faith communities in Scotland would all together criticise the government and therefore such statements need a large majority or better a unity behind them. How can you find such a majority or unity? Well I would say dialogue is the answer!

It would also be dangerous for Interfaith Scotland, if it depended to much on one political party. If for example the Scottish government tries to influence the religious groups too much via Interfaith Scotland and would threaten to cut the funding, when they are not successful in that, it would not be possible to provide a neutral platform for interfaith dialogue.

Why and when is it good, that Interfaith dialogue is political?

Interfaith dialogue is political in a good way, when it brings people together for improving the society – and is successful. One example is Interfaith Glasgow’s Weekend Club where an interfaith group of volunteers organizes activities around cultural and religious themes for refugees and asylum seekers. The engagement for refugees and asylum seekers is definitely political in the meaning I mentioned above. It has definitely an impact on the society when refugees and asylum seekers feel welcomed in Scotland and if they have the chance to learn about Scottish culture. It has also an impact on the volunteers, who have the opportunity to learn from each other and the participants at the events. Through projects like the “New Scots strategy” or media coverage around One Big Picnic or the Family Fun Day Interfaith Glasgow raises the voice for refugees, asylum seekers and more justice in our society and that is definitely a good result of interfaith engagement.

Other examples where interfaith engagement has an impact on the society is Scottish Interfaith Week. Not every theme in every year is in the same way political, but for example “Care for the environment” in 2015 or “Religion and the Media” in 2016 or “Connecting Generations”, which might become the theme for 2018 have been and are political in a good way.

Saskia and her mother Brigitte’s story

Saskia Tepe is travelling to Scotland as Interfaith Scotland’s guest to join speakers at various Holocaust Memorial Day events – read her story in her own words…

When Interfaith Scotland invited me to speak as part of the 2017 National Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) events they saskiaare organising over the week beginning 22nd January, I was absolutely delighted.

I have been talking about my mother Brigitte’s remarkable survival of the Holocaust and the aftermath of war ever since I can remember.  I try to bear witness and in paying tribute to her experiences and the choices she was forced to make, I also hope that what I tell my unsuspecting victims will make them reconsider their preconceptions!

Which is also the point of HMD.

HMD is a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. The aim of Interfaith Scotland to promote peace through dialogue between people of all faiths, is part of the process that should prevent a genocide from taking place on these shores.  The United Nations is trying to ensure that this same process of dialogue takes place across the world, and has designated the 27th January a worldwide time of remembrance, bearing witness, and education.  Most of my week long schedule of bearing witness will be held in schools. I believe, hearing a first hand testimony from a live witness makes all the difference to young people with little life experience. And given that most actual Holocaust survivors are now in the autumn of their lives, it behoves the children of survivors to carry on bearing that witness.

My mum was a Catholic Sudeten German, whom the Nazis labelled “Mischling” (mixed race Jew) because of her Jewish heritage.  As such, she experienced the tribulations of WWII during the Holocaust and again during the ethnic cleansing of German Nationals that occurred in the former Sudetenland between 1945 and 1947. She told me some of her experiences – but most of her story I had to learn from documents she left after she died, and research.  Which of course would make my story simply a second hand account.

But the HMD theme this year – “how can life go on” allows me to talk a little more about how her life continued after the war, and how the legacy of a war ravaged Europe directly affected me…

Born in 1954, I spent my early childhood in a Refugee (DP) Camp in Nurnberg, Germany.  After being fostered by families in Switzerland and Belgium, I emigrated with my mother and stepfather to the UK when I was 7 years old, as part of the 1959 UN’s World Refugee Year initiative. Contrary to cosaskia2mmon belief, many displaced people continue to languish in camps across Germany and other European countries until well into the 1960’s.  Life did not suddenly improve for those caught up in war because the bombs stopped falling.  How can life go on, when you cannot return to your home because it no longer exists or has been appropriated by strangers or an aggressive regime?  How can you build up a new life in a country that is still struggling to rebuild itself?

We spent much of our lives being aided by charities… the Red Cross, the British Refugee Council, the Catholic Church,  a teacher’s Association, and countless individuals who offered my family friendship and understanding as we struggled with ill health, low paid work, hindered by a lack of language skills.  In those days, adoptive countries took no account of foreign based qualifications.  War is a great equaliser.  However,  it also makes you realise that kindness exists in abundance and is not to be taken for granted.

Then of course, there is the not so small matter of the mental scars that are left.  Painful memories deliberately buried deep so that you don’t give up hope, and can face looking forward and plan for a new life.  And to do that, you must come to terms with the worst in mankind, your personal losses, choose whether to forgive or blame, and learn to trust again.

My mother was able to do all of those things. It was me, the second generation survivor, as we are sometimes called, that found things more difficult.  Because the children of survivors of genocide have their own cross to bear.  They carry their parents’ pain, whilst trying to assuage it and protect them from more.  They try extra hard to fulfill their parents’ ambitions for their futures, whilst being the go between with strangers and the sometimes incomprehensible cultural norms and traditions and expectations of their new foreign homes.

And the children become the voice that their parents – the survivors – lost.  They are the ones left with a specific burden.  Angry at the injustice their parents encountered, they encourage their parents to tell their stories if they can, or else they take on the responsibility themselves to shout out the message, that a great sin against humanity was committed.  And that those stories of survival, during the genocide and afterwards, must become a lesson for new generations to learn.

Read more about Holocaust Memorial Day 2017

Follow Saskia’s journey via her Twitter account.