Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Here's To Reading Anti-Glacier Books

"Von der Kuppel der Frauenkirche sah ich diese leidigen Trümmer zwischen die schöne städtische Ordnung hineingesät; da rühmte mir der Küster die Kunst des Baumeisters, welcher Kirche und Kuppel auf einen so unerwünschten Fall schon einferichetet und bombenfest erbaut hatte. Der gute Askristan deutete mir alsdann auf Ruinene nach allen Seiten und sagte bedenklich lakonisch: Das hat der Feind gethan!"
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Two years ago, when I was in Dresden, I didn't have the opportunity, as Goethe did, to stand in the cupola of the Frauenkirche. It was still being rebuilt at the time. This city, the Elbflorenz, had long been considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. One night in February 1945 changed all that. Far from being the worst firebombing in the Second World War, it was perhaps the most unnecessary.

The late winter of 1945 had brought Germany to the edge of oblivion. While the war would stretch for another two months, the war was nearing its end. Thousands of refugees fleeing the Soviet advance had taken refuge in this city. The city had been spared so far because it had little war-making industry--it didn't even have a garrison.

Nonetheless, 35,000 burned to death in a firestorm which burned for two days and cleansed from the banks of the Elbe the greatest remaining example of the Baroque. Regarded by many for years as revenge for the bombing of Coventry, Dresden did little to end the war.

There's a reason that East Germany's national anthem started with the words "Auferstanden aus Ruinen" (risen from the ruins). It's the same reason that the symbol of Atlanta is the Phoenix. Which begs the question: does the scorched Earth have a place in warfare?

I recently finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five." His book, he says comically, is an anti-glacier book. "There would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too," says Vonnegut. Even so, he was inspired to write this book about what he saw in Dresden first-hand.

Journalist Sydney J. Harris says that "'terrorism' is what we call the violence of the weak, and we condemn it, 'war' is what we call the violence of the strong, and we glorify it."

In this age of a "war on terror," one has to ask, then, whether "shocking and awing" the civilian population into submission is the best recipe for peace. Christian teaching says that the other cheek should be turned. Mr. Bush and his administration often claims to be on the same side as Christ, yet his answer to terrorism is to respond with terrorism. It seems unlikely that the fruits of this strategy will be success. As President Carter so eloquently put it, "We will not learn to live in peace by killing each others' children." Or to put it more bluntly, Gandhi admonishes us that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

Perhaps one day, we can realize one of Vonnegut's visions:
In Slaughterhouse Five, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is unstuck in time. He sees a war film backwards on page 94. This is what he sees:
"When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so that they would never hurt anybody ever again."
Of course, the irony does seem to be lost about the glaciers. It's the Republicans these days who are on the warpath. In the sense that Vonnegut meant the quotation, they are very pro-glacier, but on climate policy, they are just as determined to destroy civilization as they allege the gays are. Let's hope that the next administration is anti-glacier on the war front and pro-glacier on the climate front.

It would be a shame if we all died out before we got to see Dresden's finally restored Frauenkirche. The church was reconsecrated on October 30, 2005--over 60 years after its destruction. Incidentally, the Goethe quote at the beginning of this post proved apt. It referred to the 1760 Prussian bombardment of Dresden in which the Frauenkirche was hit by over 100 cannonballs. The Allied bombing of Dresden on the nights of February 13 and 14, 1945 did not bring down the church, but the heat of the fire caused the sandstone columns to explode.

"From the dome of the Frauenkirche I saw this loathsome rubble amongst the beautiful urban orderliness; whilst the verger boasted to me about the art of the master builder who built this church and the dome to withstand such an undesired event by making it bomb-proof. The good verger then pointed to all the ruins around us and said, reflectively and laconically: 'It was the enemy who did that!'"
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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