I haven’t posted for the last several weeks because I’ve been drifting…northern France, various places in Holland, also Berlin and what used to be East Germany. Maybe I didn’t post because it was inconvenient, no good place to write. Or maybe because topics were everywhere. How to choose? The theme of war was ubiquitous to one who knows 20th Century history. And yet (other than in Berlin, where they’ve made a tourist industry out of) it could be completely overlooked without that historical perspective.
I’m tempted to say war is in our DNA, but I’m more likely to say that simple aggression is. I think there is a difference between individual aggression–over food or breeding partners or tribal territories or personal insult–and the organized aggression we think of as war. Aggression at a national scale by one group on another is largely about power and greed on the part of a few and manipulation of the many. A retaliatory response is understandable, sure. But more than anything else, WWI was about using tenuous alliances to grab territory…and it cost 18 million lives. And that was, in the words of H.G. Wells, the “war to end war.” Yet, within 30 years, 60 million more people had died in WWII.
Remnants of all this are ubiquitous in Europe: monuments to executed resistance fighters throughout France, statues to deported Jewish children in Amsterdam, trenches in Flanders, preserved concentration camps in Berlin and Poland. But all these are sterile and soulless once those who lived those times are gone. War is not over, of course, as has been well-evidenced in the 20th Century since 1950. Hell, within three months of Germany’s surrender in 1945, Stalin had repurposed Sachsenhausen concentration camp to hold political prisoners. And while I was in Berlin, a factoid came to my attention that brought to mind the George Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The factoid…that more than half of the current Russian population do not know who built the Berlin Wall.
This latter is, at best ironic, at worst tragically prescient. This is why I didn’t post during my travels. How do you sort it all out? What’s to say? Our history speaks for itself, whether or not anyone listens.