Justin Welby did not "'say sorry' for bombing the Nazis"


Following the publication by the Daily Mail of a story entitled ‘Archbishop “says sorry” for bombing the Nazis‘, the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued the following statement on the “manifestly false” story. A spokesperson for the Archbishop of Canterbury said:

Any suggestion that the Archbishop was apologising is manifestly false.

The Archbishop’s comments were a reflection in a solemn ceremony on the tragedy of war. They very carefully avoided apologising, and those present, including the President of Germany, recognised the difference. In his speech the President also recognised the fact that there is no equivalence with Nazi war crimes and that the war started with Nazi aggression.

In broadcast interviews immediately following his speech the Archbishop refused to say he was apologising, but repeated that war is always tragedy. He also referred to the terrible losses in Bomber command.

Archbishop Welby said it was not a question of blame and spoke of the bombing of Coventry, Liverpool, London and other places.

The full text of the Archbishop’s speech can be found on the Archbishop’s website (or you can watch it courtesy of MDR Mediathek [from 14.00]). Nowhere does he apologise for bombing the Nazis. Not even in inverted commas does he “say sorry”. Indeed, his meditation on sorrow and pain is framed unequivocally in the context of Christian discipleship, which demands humility, compassion and love. The couple of sentences which so irk the Mail (and a number of Conservative MPs) are:

Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here seventy years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.

What, exactly, is the problem here? Does this not flow from the heart of God? Is it not an expression of the mind of Christ? Is it not possible to be grateful for victory in war and yet feel regret about the devastating course of certain battles? What is so offensive about expressing sorrow to a former enemy for the hardness of heart which could carpet bomb thousands of  women and children, burn down their homes, and raze an entire city? Consider an eyewitness account:

It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.

Nor should we forget. Healing only comes with exorcism, and that can be a deadly agony. How does the wound heal if there is no sense of pain? How can there be reconciliation if we cannot move beyond the Basil Fawlty mentality of “Well, you started it!”? Human history is one long passion: the ‘Man of Sorrows’ did not come to end our suffering or grief, but to help us to understand it. In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live (at 1hr 25mins) the Archbishop expanded his theme:

JW: I think the key lesson we need to learn is that war is a brutalising process, that reconciliation takes a long time and is fragile, and that remembering well is essential to forgiving completely. And as a Christian we saw in this ceremony together today the way in which faith in Jesus Christ brings people together to forgive as they remember.

5 Live: But of course not just in Dresden. We’ve been speaking today throughout the program about the current situation in Ukraine and what’s happening globally at the moment. Are those lessons being learnt and are they being reflected in what’s happening today?

JW: Well I think you’re making a very good point there, that reconciliation, getting away from violent conflict, learning to disagree well, is a very fragile process. The great thing about Dresden today is they’re not remembering to blame but to remembering to move on and to learn. And I think it’s that learning that needs to go on being spread. And there are times when one confronts such evil that it is very difficult to see other ways of facing it.

5 Live: And what position can you have, and can the Church of England have, in doing that, or at least helping that to happen.

JW: Well, the Church of England, through the Anglican Communion, has 80m members in 165 countries, the vast majority in places of poverty, and over half in countries which are in conflict or post-conflict situations. And we are engaged all round the world in working for reconciliation and peacemaking and many Anglicans are suffering and dying in that cause.

5 Live: And do you feel that your message is being listened to? Do you feel as relevant now?

JW: It’s being listened to well in some places and not at all in others, and some way between the two in many. Yes, it’s not our message, it’s not the message of the Anglican Church: it’s the good news of peace in Jesus Christ. And that is still relevant and it is still being listened to, and in many parts of the world that is what people turn to in moments of the greatest despair and darkness.

5 Live: And in the sense of Dresden, is one of the ways forward to apologise for what happened? Do you think Britain and America should apologise for what happened in Dresden?

JW: That’s a very complicated question, because when you listen to people who were in bomber command and you hear of their suffering; I lived in Coventry and you see the suffering there, in London we know of the Blitz, and in many other cities right across the United Kingdom and round the world, I think it’s more complicated than should we apologise. I think there is a deep need for profound sorrow at the events and the causes of such dreadful times as Europe lived through. And there’s also reason for hope and encouragement that Europe has become a centre of reconciliation in the world – a great miracle.”

There you have the mind of Archbishop Justin, clearly and unequivocally uttered: “I think it’s more complicated than should we apologise.” But the Mail doesn’t mention this: the tabloids don’t do nuance very well, you see – if they do it at all. Instead, they excise half a sentence from its context, eradicate Jesus and embellish with false inferences, and, lo and behold, a headline by which to whip up a frenzy for the dumb, condemn the messenger of peace, and suppress the truth of the suffering Christ.

Writing on his blog from Dresden, the Archbishop has expressed sadness at the Daily Mail‘s headline:

No honest reading of what I said in the church and on the BBC afterwards could come anywhere near such an idea.. Contrary to the the Mail’s report, on the BBC I spoke clearly of the bombing of British cities, mentioning especially Coventry and London. I also spoke of the terrible losses of the heroic crews of Bomber Command. My grandmother’s brother was killed on his first mission, in a Wellington.

The bombing of Dresden was indeed controversial. It was an apocalypse of horror, suffering and reproach. Some 25,000 are estimated to have died, many of them with little understanding of their sins and no awareness at all of their crimes. But judgment came in a whirlwind of fire. Whatever the reasoned ethics or righteousness of the action, the Allied bombings inflicted a tribulation which we can scarcely begin to imagine. Perhaps in that world there was more Manichaeism, but today we can meditate upon the vulnerable and defenceless; upon fortuitous suffering and fruitless suffering; and upon the call to a discipleship which breaks our ties with the wisdom of the world, and forces us, for the sake of the new creation, to feel profound regret and intense sorrow at the fall of every sparrow – even those who once greeted the dawn with a chorus of Es geht um Deutschlands Gloria.