Monday, February 04, 2008

123 Meme

"Our fire engine was out of water," Cologne, May 31, 1942

I’ve been tagged (tagged a couple of times, I think -- ganked is more like it) with the 123 meme, a sort of ego virus whereby bloggers get to write about themselves under the guise of entertaining readers. It goes like this:

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Where I type there is no "nearest book;" there's about 100 within arm's reach that I keep handy for research. But I pulled one off the top of a stack that was pretty close to my right hand. The fifth sentence is this:

The Transportation Plan attack on the supply lines to Huertgen Forest bombed Düren with the same tonnage that was dropped on Hamburg, a city with forty times the population.

The book is an English translation of Jörg Friedrich's "Der Brand," a disturbing-on-many-levels catalogue of the destruction wrought on Germany by Allied air bombardment in World War II. The next three sentences are:

Of 9,322 buildings, thirteen remained undamaged. Düren, Jülich, and Kleve were the cities that suffered the greatest destruction in World War II. In Düren, 3,127 lives were lost.

The book is not all so dryly statistical. A little further down the page, you can read: "The five-hundred-year-old bells of the twelfth century Provost's Church were found melted among the rubble. Only the skull and bones of Saint Christina remained undamaged, in a recess in a wall of the Chapel of St. Christina ...."

In the introduction to one of his sections, Friedrich observes something I had not thought of before; what set World War II apart from the generally destructive history of Germany since the Middle Ages.

History is stone, paper, and narrative, and largely combustible. Fires, destruction, pillage, and massacre are the crossroads of urban narratives. Every city had been destroyed at least once, but never before had all the cities been destroyed at the same time. When that happened between 1940 and 1945, a bridge to a landscape collapsed, and that landscape no longer exists.

Except for the odd scorched cathedral or palace, modern Germans are entirely cut off from the physical evidence of their past, and thus from one way of being aware of it. Though many Germans live in cities founded by the Romans, they seem newer than American cities. Which may be, in part, why of all the Europeans I argue with about modern world affairs, Germans seem the most innocent and child-like about it all.

When World War II ended, Germans began to speak of 1945 as the Year Zero. Time began again. And all across the landscape of Europe was a hell's carpet of burned cities, from Coventry to Kiev. Americans entering Nagasaki at night after the bombing tell of driving for miles waiting to see the city, then realizing they had been in the city all along, and that the silent crags and spars around them were not rocks and trees but the ruins of the place.

The wound showed. When the Cold War ended, we all congratulated ourselves at having got through it without more than a few flare-ups and no major bombings. All the cities stood intact. But the wound, like a series of concussions, bloomed below the skin, in the bone.

As for tags, I do what I always do: Open tag, for anyone who wants to join in and has been overlooked.