How Volkstrauertag reminds Elder Uchtdorf of the need for peace, reconciliation and forgiveness

On a sunny autumn morning, in a military cemetery overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, and others with German or military ties, gathered to commemorate Volkstrauertag, German National Day of Mourning, on Sunday, Nov. 14.

Each year in the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Volkstrauertag is observed to pay tribute to the 41 German prisoners of war who are buried there, as well as to soldiers from all other nations who have died for their countries. This event was a return to tradition after 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, became the first year since 1977 that the event wasn’t held in the cemetery. 

For as long as he can remember in his adult life, Elder Uchtdorf said in his remarks at the commemorative event, Volkstrauertag has reminded him “of the tragedy of war and the need to do everything in our own individual power to preserve and regain peace or at least to clearly speak out against [oppression].”

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks during the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks during the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

But Volkstrauertag is about remembering more than soldiers who died in war, he continued. “This … commemoration and service includes victims of violent oppression, which we find possible, even today, because the oppression sometimes happens because of race, religion or of conviction, not just open war.”

This year, Elder and Sister Uchtdorf were reminded of a symbol of suppression and political warfare: the Berlin Wall, which was built 60 years ago, in August 1961. On Nov. 9, 1989, the wall came down. 

“I never thought it would come down during my lifetime,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “I always thought it would be something which would happen perhaps when our grandchildren — one of our grandsons is here with us today — during their lifetime, but not during mine. Then all of a sudden, this happened and it was possible because of the peaceful determination of its people plus, most importantly, the unwavering help and support of friends.”

Emotion filled his voice as he spoke about the special role the United States, a former enemy of Germany, had in facilitating the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Significant historical events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the reconciliation of countries such as Germany, Hungary, South Africa and Vietnam, give reason to believe that nothing is impossible and regardless of challenges in politically colored relationships, good may and can always prevail, Elder Uchtdorf said.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks to the BYU and UVU ROTC honor guards after the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks to the BYU and UVU ROTC honor guards after the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

“We need to learn to forgive,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “That is true among nations. It is true within societies. It is true within communities. It is true within families. It is true within personal lives.”

Matthew 6:14 states, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

History cannot be changed, Elder Uchtdorf said, but one can learn from it, first by accepting facts and truth. As one learns from historical events and their consequences, he or she can act on the need to be better in the future.

Volkstrauertag’s message of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness “is truly the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its purest form,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “But it’s up to us to make it happen. We can and should be a people of peace and reconciliation.” 

Each person needs to make a commitment to craft peace for future generations. 

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, center and his wife Sister Harriet F. Uchtdorf accompanied by German Honorary Consul James T. Burton, left, take part in a processional through the graves ahead of the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, center and his wife Sister Harriet F. Uchtdorf accompanied by German Honorary Consul James T. Burton, left, take part in a processional through the graves ahead of the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

“With every kind word and with every act of love for God’s children, whatever religion, nationality, race, or socio-economic circumstance they may be in, we honor those who lost their lives in serving their country,” Elder Uchtdorf said in closing. 

“On this day of remembrance and mourning, let us continue to be confident and full of hope for a better and more peaceful future.“

James Burton, honorary consul of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Colonel Charles R. Bell Jr., chief of staff of the 76th Operational Response Command, also spoke at the event, with prayers offered by Daniel Oswald, honorary consul of the Swiss Confederation, and Franz Kolb, honorary consul of the Republic of Austria. Music was provided by the German Chorus Harmonie.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, center and his wife Sister Harriet F. Uchtdorf, German Honorary Consul James T. Burton, left, show their respect as they take part in the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, center and his wife Sister Harriet F. Uchtdorf, German Honorary Consul James T. Burton, left, show their respect as they take part in the Volkstrauertag event at the Fort Douglas Military Cemetery on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News