War: What Is It Good For?
Kenneth Reeds, WLC
This summer the fence surrounding Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg was decorated with large photographs. They included images of rusted artillery shells mingled with perky grass, craters taking the role of soft ponds, consumed tanks meshed with countryside, and simply dramatic settings where war was once waged. It was at once a testament to man’s immediate impact on nature and nature’s ability to cure with time. It is possible to say that the scarred landscapes questioned the sensibility of the loss and ruin. Called Terres de Paix, Michael St. Maur Sheil’s exhibit is just one of the many ways the hundredth anniversary of World War I’s start is being commemorated. In a poignant juxtaposition, the nearby newsstand on the Boulevard Saint-Michel sold headlines all summer that reminded readers of the ever-present realities that have converted a sentence into a cliché: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. George Santayana’s words are perhaps memorable because they were informed by the fact that his life (1863-1952) did not just witness the “Great War,” but also spanned some of history’s worst violence and most proficient destruction.
The many inscriptions that adorn the capital’s walls remind people that Paris, of course, suffered the twentieth century’s wars. However, the damage was not nearly as extreme as that which occurred in other European municipalities. Despite World War I’s Battle of the Marne taking place so nearby that residents could hear the fighting, German defeat spared the storied buildings and bridges the scars that so many of her citizens suffered. In World War II the French government abandoned Paris before the Nazi invasion, meaning that it was secured without battle. As the allies advanced, occupying General Dietrich von Choltitz protected it again by famously disobeying Hitler’s order to leave the city in “complete debris”. This act led to the New York Times remembering Choltitz on his death in 1966 as the “savior of Paris”. Yet this heroic gesture should be contrasted by the fact that the same general was recorded on tape implicating himself in the murder of 36,000 Jews (his own estimation) in Sebastopol.
It is possible to sense tension between the thanks that one feels towards Choltitz for saving Paris and the horror produced by his crimes. Such contradiction is quite human and the humanity in his lack of action in regard to Paris is beautiful while his responsibility for genocide is almost inhuman. Yet, Choltitz was indeed human and there is no doubt that he was one of many who played an important –and very human– role that made the Nazi crimes possible. In the same recordings, he himself recognized this fact:
“We all share the guilt. We went along with everything, and we half-took the Nazis seriously instead of saying ‘to hell with you and your stupid nonsense’. I misled my soldiers into believing this rubbish. I feel utterly ashamed of myself. Perhaps we bear even more guilt than these uneducated animals.”
The frankness of Choltitz’s words is refreshing, particularly in the face of any defense that he was simply a soldier who followed orders. It is possible to quote this opinion thanks to the fact that Choltitz was imprisoned in Trent Park in north London. It was there that numerous unaware Nazi officers were held in a microphone-infested environment that enabled the allies to listen to many of their conversations. Choltitz’s words and those of others who were involved in many of the war’s most important moments are available in the book Tapping Hitler’s Generals. It is a remarkable text in many ways, perhaps most because of the fact that in reading the book you are reminded that the people who were responsible for Europe’s darkest moment were not inhuman monsters, but very real and very human. It is that humanity which frightens me the most, particularly when taken in the context of another of George Santayana’s clichéd quotes: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.