Paul Oestreicher has played a significant role in my life every since I first went to East Germany in the 1960s to take part in the Coventry Cathedral project of reconciliation in Dresden. At that time, I did not know him, or know of the behind the scenes role he had played in enabling this project to take place between Britain and East Germany – two countries on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain.
Paul was a leading Cold War peace campaigner and has continued to espouse this cause, renewing his call for a peaceful world in a speech in Coventry recently. He argued that the maintenance of peace must take priority over ‘humanity’s unending struggles for justice’ because ‘tomorrow’s wars would wipe out every social advance in human history, would wipe out – us.’
Paul was speaking at the Lord Mayor of Coventry’s Annual Peace Lecture in Coventry Cathedral on the day after Remembrance Sunday.
He warned that although the world is crying out for justice and change, our very survival is threatened by nuclear war.
In this country alone, look at ‘our disintegrating welfare state, our struggling health service, our shameful prisons, not to speak of the tragedy of Brexit’, he said. But, he argued, the longing for justice depends on the survival of humankind. And that is no longer certain. Our survival depends on the world remaining at peace and not ‘descending into a vortex of violence’.
During the Cold War, Paul was director of Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for International Reconciliation. Now 86, he was born in Germany of Jewish ancestry, his family escaping to New Zealand in 1939. In the 1950s, he made his life in England, was ordained as an Anglican priest, worked for the religious affairs department of the BBC and then for the British Council of Churches. He is also a leading Quaker and a Vice President of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).
In a Preface to Stepping Off the Map, a Cold War memoir which I edited and contributed to, Paul described his many years of work behind the scenes for peace and reconciliation during the struggle between East and West, communism and capitalism. He revealed how he learned to ‘sup with my Cold War enemies in East and West’ in the interests of preserving peace and stability.
At that time, he said in his speech, the Anglican Church had agreed that the British nuclear bomb should be abolished – but not until the end of the Cold War. He told the Coventry audience: ‘That Cold War has long gone. The Church has forgotten what is said then. Had it not, every bishop should now be wearing a CND badge and speaking out publicly. The Church’s silence is deafening …’