The Stones Cry Out (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Buddhas of Bamyan, Photo by Marco Bonavoglia,  Used by permission  GNU Free Documentation License

Buddhas of Bamyan, Photo by Marco Bonavoglia, Used by permission GNU Free Documentation License

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.

Reims 1918, Image in the Public Domain

Reims 1918, Image in the Public Domain

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.”

General Josias von Heeringen (March 9, 1850 – October 9, 1926)  Image in the Public Domain

General Josias von Heeringen (March 9, 1850 – October 9, 1926) Image in the Public Domain

As an apologist for barbarism, however, Generalleutnant Wolfgang von Ditfurth was 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”)

Reims 1918, Image in the Public Domain

Reims 1918, Image in the Public Domain

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).

Rudolf Hersog (1869-1843)  Image in the Public Domain

Rudolf Hersog (1869-1843) Image in the Public Domain

In his 1914 pre-war 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

For a description of the complete damage done to Reims in WWI, please follow this link.

Note: This is a reprint of a post from April 2010. If you would like a truly moving experience, play the referenced music, Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” and then reread this post.

28 responses to “The Stones Cry Out (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Funny you should (re)post this today, Dennis. My (Muslim, as it happens) friend and I were talking about faith and intolerance just last night, a discussion sparked by the extraordinary unified expression of faith during prayers at the great Mosque at Mecca during Ramadan. Then, later, another friend (a Hindu, as it happens) sent me this extract from an upcoming book by the English-born Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who lives and practices (mostly) from Australia – you might enjoy it, we did 🙂

    “A local journalist called and asked me “What would you do, Ajahn Brahm, if someone took a Buddhist Holy Book and flushed it down the toilet?”

    Without hesitation I answered “Sir, if someone took a Buddhist Holy Book and flushed it down the toilet, the first thing I would do is call a plumber!”

    When the journalist finished laughing, he confided in me that that was the most sensible answer he had heard.

    Then I went further. I explained that someone may blow up many statues of the Buddha, burn down Buddhist temples or kill Buddhist monks and nuns; they may destroy all of this but I will never allow them to destroy Buddhism. You may flush a Holy Book down a toilet, but you will never flush forgiveness, peace and compassion down a toilet.

    The book is not the religion, nor the statue, the building or the priest. These are only “containers.”

    What does the book teach us? What does the statue represent? What qualities are the priests supposed to embody? This is the “content”.

    When we recognize the difference between the container and the contents, then we will preserve the contents even when the container is being destroyed.

    We can print more books, build more temples and statues and even train more monks and nuns, but when we lose our love and respect for others and ourselves and replace it with violence, then the whole religion has gone down the toilet.”

    I think this is what the French people did with their historic and sacred cathedral at Reims.

    • Wonderful story about the Buddhist, Gene. Idolatry replaces the symbol with the actuality of the divine, and in the search for the divine surely misleads the seeker. But that vessel can often be a shining symbol, so full of the power of belief that an enemy believes that its destruction will help bring collapse. I think that is what the Germans believed at Reims. That is part of the tragedy, that it was intentional. When the Americans bombed Benedict’s monastery at Monte Cassino in a mistaken assumption that the Germans were using it as a defensive position, the destruction can be termed a mistake. But it does not mean that Monte Cassino was not just as devastated. And how do we justify the English night bombing of Germany in World War II? This was a campaign against the German people and cities because the bombing was too inaccurate to strike at specific targets. It was intentional, random, and murderous. It was, in short, war.

      Destruction is part of war and always will be so. It is somehow worse that the destruction is often targeted to the symbols that we hold most dear.

  2. Having been in Reims on Armistice Day, 2004, I stood in front of the Cathedral at the anniversary of the 11th month, the 11th day, the 11th hour, and recalled the destruction from that horrible time. Even now, reading your remarks, that bottomless pit in my stomach aches once again. The massive reconstruction effort by the Rockefeller family was noble, but it should never have come to that. Fanaticism, under any flag, is our greatest threat. I’m afraid we’ll be victims for quite some time to come. Vann Helms

    • I know that feeling in the pit of the stomach, Vann. I decided to repost this because I am working on an article about the Abbaye Sainte Trinité de Lessay, almost destroyed in WW2. Thanks for this – the ceremony of Armistice Day must have been so moving.

  3. A powerful and thought-provoking post. Fanaticism is indeed the enemy of faith (I write as a believing and practising Catholic) – and you remind us what we are capable of as human beings when we set our hearts against the Beauty that created us: when we “don’t want to understand”. I’m thinking too of the destruction wrought to churches here in England at the Reformation, when Christian art (the focus of prayer and devotion) was violently destroyed in the name of Christ.

    • Antonia, the destruction of the Reformation, the horrible destructions of the wars of religion in Europe and the French Revolution. Fanaticism is so dangerous and so pervasive. Thank you for this comment.

  4. Blind faith is a dangerous thing ~ it builds to a crescendo of fanaticism. Born of ignorance, I would say, and a need for attention at some deeply disturbed level. … The ignorant give no care for the needs or belongings of others. Unless it is there to serve their cause it is dispensable. … It would serve us all well to remember the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sadly, many people only know abuse and so that is what they dish out and that is what they expect in return. Love is the answer, but the ignorant don’t care. … A thought-provoking blog post. Thank you … Dorothy 🙂

    • Thank you for these thoughts, Dorothy. I am never sure of the “why” in the equation, but we can certainly see the results of the fanaticism. I am glad that you responded to the post with your comment and look forward to hearing more in the future.

  5. Distressing, sad, but fascinating post Dennis The haughty arrogance of that german general still grates, no? Revolting stuff. Did he not realise we are all just passing through, as wars pass and end, and these things belong to future generations? That’s a rhetorical question I suppose. Evidentially he did not realise. The destruction of the Buddha in Afghanistan is even more heartbreaking. So is the damage to the libraries in Timbuktu in Mali. And the destruction of the Irish Public Records office (and a 100 years of irreplaceable historic records & documents) lost forever, in the Civil War here in 1922. Still makes my blood boil. Oh dear. Great post. Warm regards as always. -Arran.

    • Arran, I love the idea that we are all just passing through. Maybe that gives us more perspective, but then again, when you look at the condition of the sides of roads sometimes, maybe “just passing through” means “who gives a damn”. The Timbuktu libraries, the Irish Public Records office and so many more have been destroyed through the actions of these zealots. Thanks for this, and I am truly sorry sometimes for these posts, because I know they cause pain to lots of people. But if we forget? It’s even worse.

      • You are absolutely right about the pain or distress of this stuff, and – more to the point- about the deep sadness of these losses Dennis, be it in Ireland, France, Afghanistan or Mali. But of course you are right too about the vital importance of not forgetting. That is, or would be far worse. How else will we learn?

  6. Well, this is depressing. I can’t bring myself to play the music and read the post again – not on the same day. You say that if we forget, it’s worse than the destruction. But perhaps you’re assuming that those who would destroy ancient things are reading your blog and thinking again. I hope they are but we know that they probably aren’t. And wouldn’t. When all the Wolfgang von Ditfurths gather their people around them and work them up into a destructive frenzy, what can we do? BUT! Digital photography will be very hard to kill, so don’t stop photographing and recording beautiful French churches.

    • Trish, I don’t think that those who would destroy would read our blog and it would change their mind. The Ditfurth’s of the world march to the beat of a stern drummer and nothing would stand in their way. But the rest of the world must stand in their way.

    • Kalli, thanks for the comment. I think it is hard for many of us to understand. There is no “clean” war; having unleashed the dogs, we have little control over subsequent events. Destruction is assured, destruction of the innocent inevitable.

  7. “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….”

    Yes, I fear, it is men, almost always men.

    Not that I believe in womankind (or men-unkind), but W H Auden’s little quip always gives me pause. He said something to the effect that perhaps human societies might behave better were women empowered to make the strategic, political decisions and then men had the task of implementing them. Imagine that.

  8. This is a very moving and painful reminder that “faith” can be a short way from barbarism. But I cannot help but think that if you talk about obliterating cultural treasures to mere rubble what about WWII ?

    • Birgit, how long this post would have been if it was about anything other than the destruction of a single cathedral! The wholesale destruction of Warsaw, Dresden, Tokyo, Monte Cassino, and so many more would have not only been long but utterly depressing. Our descriptions of the Norman churches inevitably have descriptions of the damage done in the Normandy invasion, and posts of the other churches have told stories of the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution and other cultural barbarisms. Sometimes I wonder that a single church survived, much less the 5000 Romanesque in France alone.

      Thanks for your comment.

  9. Congratulations for your work!
    Is it possible for you to tell me where you found the quote about Reims by General Van Heeringen? Actually, I would like to know the newspaper it was printed in as well as the date of the interview and of the publishing.
    Thank you in advance

    • Pierre, this post was written in 2010 so I’ll have to do some research. I believe the original citation was from a dispatch in the NY Times by American journalist Richard Harding Davis in 1914. I’ll try to find my original notes for you.

    • Pierre, I have found a citation by William W. Rasor quoted in Pan-American Magazine from the Geographic and Historical Society of the Americas, Volume 28 (NY 1918). This was not my original source, which I will continue to try to find.

  10. Hi Dennis, I am catching up on a little “light” reading! Your posts are always enlightening, as my husband and I now wander the Germany countryside visiting the historic sites that were also devastated during the wars. There would be great sadness in my heart if not for the courageous rebuilding that has taken place since. The building and rebuilding of these marvels of architectue are a reminder of spiritual strength, no just religious strenght, but strength of the human spirit, and while they are only containers or symbols, as pointed out by one of your readers, they lift the heart.

  11. Pingback: Doubting Thomas – Amuse-bouche #6 (Dennis Aubrey) | Via Lucis Photography

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