How many living beings died in the wars of the 20th century? How many had their lives destroyed, both military and civilian? How many lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers? How many lost limbs and bodily functioning? How many lost minds? Incalculable, I guess. And how many more have suffered similarly, already, in the twenty-first century?
These thoughts were prompted the other night by watching the recording we had made of The Rape of Europa, the documentary film that tells the story of the looting of Europe's private and museum art collections by the Nazis during World War II. This part of the story would have been horrifying enough by itself, but the film goes further: it also tells the story of the vast numbers of art works and irreplaceable architectural landmarks that fell victim to Allied bombs and artillery, and of their wanton, systematic destruction by retreating German forces. It includes amazing footage of the hordes amassed by Nazi leaders--Field Marshall Goering for his own aggrandizement, Hitler in order to fulfill his overweening ambition for a "Reichsmuseum" in Linz, Austria, the modest town of his birth.
That some significant part of the European patrimony survived is thanks to the efforts of many who risked their lives to pack, remove and hide the treasures from the Nazi invaders, and to those who prevailed upon the Allied armies to respect, where possible, the artistic heritage of the countries they liberated--no easy task, as the film makes clear, when infantrymen in the field, under attack from fortresses like the monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, were forced to make agonizing choices between that heritage and their own lives.
It's an inspiring and, in may ways, a horrifying film, in which we learn much about the boundless greed and vengeful fury that warfare inspires in the souls of men. To steal or destroy a country's art is to disempower it by draining its cultural lifeblood: the toppling of that Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad is but one recent example of the powerful symbolism involved. So, too, sadly, was the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban not many years ago in Afghanistan.
And yet... and yet... From the Buddhist point of view, of course, all these things are just that: things, no matter how beautiful or filled with symbolic or spiritual value. Transience, in this view, is a relative term: even the mountain crumbles in the course of the millennia. Life, on the other hand, transient though it might be, is the ultimate value. Given the choice between art and life, I assume that for the good Buddhist there is no contest. But the great achievement of "The Rape of Europa" is in reminding us just how morally complex and emotionally agonizing those choices can be.