As a non-practicing man of religion (a phrase that I write with an absolutely straight face), I have long been interested in the idea of faith. My sister Ann has a deep, abiding Catholic faith that gives her guidance in her life. We have often discussed the concept and one area on which we disagree is the role of doubt in faith. I contend absolutely that without doubt – deep, disturbing doubt – the concept of faith is useless. Faith is belief despite doubt, despite fear. To believe “in spite of” is the essence of faith. Without doubt, faith devolves into certainty, and certainty leads inevitably to fanaticism. If one is absolutely certain in matters of belief, then one is capable of any absurdity and any outrage. The worst excesses of any religious war are characterized by men who act in absolute confidence of their rectitude, without regard to humanity or history.
In March of 2001, the Taliban of Afghanistan were ordered by Mullah Mohammed Omar to destroy the famous Buddhas of Bamyan. These fourteen-centuries old monuments to peace and contemplation were wantonly destroyed by Islamic fanatics, despite the fact that their ancestors had known and admired them for over a thousand years. When criticized for his actions, Omar replied, “All we are breaking are stones … I don’t care about anything but Islam.”
It is important to recognize that Christians are not exempt from such barbarism. In World War I, the Germans deliberately destroyed works of equal importance and beauty, destruction wreaked in the name of their God and their Kultur. The French city of Reims, home to one of the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals, was subjected to a systematic four year campaign of bombardment, culminating in the nightmare of June 15 to June 18, 1918 when over 16,000 shells fell on the defenseless city. The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims was virtually destroyed.
The Germans were just as unrepentent as the Taliban. General von Heeringen, who had command of the army before Reims, declared in December 1914, “German blood is worth more than all French monuments. When the moment comes to take Rheims, I will order the general bombardment of the town, and the responsibility of its destruction will fall on the French. We will not respect Rheims so long as the French remain there.”
As an apologist for barbarism, however, General von Disfurth is unsurpassed. “If all the monuments, all the architectural masterpieces that stand between our guns and those of the enemy went to the devil we would not care. Mars is the master of the hour, not Apollo. They call us Barbarians. What does it matter? We laugh. Let them tell us about the Rheims Cathedral, about the Churches and the palaces that have shared their fate. We won’t listen. We don’t want to understand.”
“We don’t want to understand“. Truly the words of a fanatic.
But Von Disfurth was not finished. “No object whatever is served by taking any notice of the accusation of barbarity leveled against Germany by our foreign critics. Frankly we are and must be barbarians, if by this we understand those who wage war relentlessly and to the uttermost degree. Every act committed by our troops for the purpose of discouraging, defeating, destroying our enemies is a brave act and a good deed and is fully justified. It is of no consequence whatever if all the monuments ever created, all the pictures ever painted, all the buildings ever erected by the great architects of the world be destroyed, if by their destruction we promote Germany’s triumph over her enemies who wish her complete annihilation. The commonest, ugliest stone placed to mark the burial place of a German grenadier is a more glorious and venerable monument than all the cathedrals of Europe put together, . . . our troops must achieve victory, —what else matters?” (quoted by Ralph Adams Cram, The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Volume III, January 1915-December 1915).
Iconoclasm in generals may perhaps be a vocational commonplace, but what was worse, possibly the very height of arrogance, was the celebration of this destruction by the Berlin poet Rudolf Hersog in January 1915.
“The bells sound no more in the two-towered Dom. We have closed with lead, O Rheims, thy house of idolatry.” (“Lohal Anzeuger”)
One would hope for better in an artist. The Germans even have a word for it: “Schandenfreude”, variously defined as “the pleasure of wrongdoing” or “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others”. How is it possible that this emanates from a poet from the same generation as Gustav Mahler, who created the astonishing “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from the sublime poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866).
In his panegyric to German culture “Die Wiskottens“, translated as “Sons of the Rhine“, Hersog writes. “We are a people, a race of thinkers and poets. If we but do justice to our contemporaries, our age too shall be immortalized.”
Perhaps Hersog should have realized that if you do injustice to your contemporaries, you will also be immortalized. And the shattered stones shall cry out for their justice.
If you are interested in these photographs of the destruction of Reims in World War I (taken by the French Army), here is a link to “World War One Color Photos“