Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Inspired by all the hype around the release of The Monuments Men, we went online to watch the much earlier documentary, The Rape of Europa (2006).  It's a terrific recounting of the rape of the cultural heritage of Europe by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen in the period up to and including World War II; of the further ravages inflicted that conflict, most especially in war-torn Italy; and of the continuing efforts, even today, at restitution of artworks to the heirs of their rightful owners, and the restoration of others badly damaged by bombing raids, artillery, and wanton, malicious acts of destruction.

Some of this bleak history was familiar to me; other parts less so.  I thought to have known the story of the Nazi invasion of Poland--but was not aware of Hitler's explicit orders that Poles be indiscriminately slaughtered in the process; nor of the deliberate, unsparing, vengeful destruction wreaked upon the capital in the wake of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupiers, which started, coincidentally, on my birthday, August 1st, in 1944.  Similar scorched earth destruction of artworks and monuments accompanied the devastatingly slow German retreat through Italy.  The ancient bridges in Florence were destroyed for no reason other than affronted pride as their forces evacuated that city.  And so on, endlessly. The Nazis were even more mindlessly brutal than I had known before, if that were possible.

The movie is even-handed, though, in its documentation of the cultural destruction wrought by the Allies.  American and British bombs wreaked havoc and caused many thousands of needless civilian deaths in German cities for no better reason, mostly, than the attack on German morale and sheer vengeance.  In some instances, it appears "our side" did bomb "carefully"--as in the case of the Florence rail yards, where the bombing was extraordinarily precise.  Dresden, though, "the Florence of the North," was not similarly spared.  Read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.  The Russians too, though understandably enraged by what they had experienced at German hands, were merciless in their own brutality toward civilians, and made off with a huge hoard of stolen artworks, largely still not returned to the German museums from which they were removed.

I'm curious to see what Hollywood makes of all this.  I can't imagine that a non-documentary movie could to a better job than "The Rape of Europa" in describing the cultural outrages of World War II.  It raises, too, the great moral question that WWII leaders--as well as ordinary soldiers--were confronted with: what's more important, a great treasure-house of art like the 6th century abbey of Monte Cassino, or a human life?  (They bombed the abbey, not knowing that countless local villagers had taken refuge there, in the belief they would be safe in a place that no-one would target.)

Having lived through WWII, I still believe it to have been a necessary war.  With today's perspective, the moral imperatives of that time seem relatively clear.  What are we to do, though, about Syria?  About North Vietnam, with the recently released UN report of atrocities in progress there?  About countless other hot spots in the world, where militaries and rebels alike are armed with weapons more powerful and potentially destructive than even half a century ago?  The conscience of the world, so sorely tried, tends to numb in the face of such great, irresolvable challenges, and allow the atrocities to continue unabated.  What's a poor student of the dharma to do, in such a circumstance?  It seems like a poor response, to sit around indulging in my own pacifistic thoughts...

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