Ours is a fragile peace.
Historically speaking, the time that has elapsed since man-made fire and brimstone rent a hideous tear in the physical fabric of the European continent would barely suffice to reload a gun. Little wonder, then, that our cities are still wearing a rictus grin today.
The Second World War’s concerted attack on human dignity is no secret, but its annihilation of human endeavour, not least in oppressed Germany, may not be fully comprehended in some quarters. In timber-topped Nuremberg, nearly the entire town centre was expunged, much of it literally overnight. Labyrinthine Lübeck was pummelled into exhausted submission. On the 101st anniversary of the Great Fire that rippled out of the Deichstraße to engulf over fifty people, the Katastrophe fell from the sky over Hamburg, incinerating many where they stood. (The Allied operation had, uncomfortably, been called Gomorrha.) And then there was Dresden, preserved today only in paint and the over-stimulated imagination.
Like bad hair dye, efforts to turn back the architectural clock often seem to have been calculated to make us wince. Across Bavaria, the scars of airborne devastation have been sealed with a laudable but all too apparent scrupulousness. Faithful reproductions these palaces and town halls may be, but they also have the hollow look of the copy. In town after town, the glare of pretence casts a weak light as soon swallowed by realisation of what its presence implies. Beauty is one thing; but you can’t fake history.
You can, however, eradicate it. A couple of years ago, I passed Albrecht Dürer’s Tudor house in Nuremberg, noting the scrawny dragon writhing on the end of St George’s sword under the eaves. The nearby statue of the painter, we were reliably informed, was the first of its kind in Germany: art paying tribute to art. Then, a matter of days ago, I learnt from Mireille Marokvia’s wistful memoir Sins of the Innocent that the original house, tortured reptile and all, had been gutted in a British blitz. I’d been taken in by an elaborate deceit.
Much more recently, in Lübeck, I fell for the dark Gothic finials of the improbably old colonnaded town hall. For improbable, read impossible: at least some of it was, in fact, wrecked by an unrepentantly philistine aerial bombardment during the Second World War. This Baltic beauty had moved the stringent, if biased, aesthete Thomas Mann to flights of description which he would ordinarily reserve for his pet theme, classical music. Yet, in one night of hell dreamt up in the world of the living, the novelist’s muse was shaken to its core.
Does any of this matter? I would argue in the affirmative for two reasons. The first is that it reminds us that the dispassionate desecration of tradition is not peculiar to the grim reapers of the North African sands. The second is, if possible, even more sinister: we are now living in a world severed from all that used to bind us. In an age when the very idea of Europe is under siege, it is disquieting to think that the actual foundations on which the continent is built are in large part the treacherous legacy of a brutally sudden crisis in fellow feeling but a heartbeat of recorded time ago.
If 1939 swept away an entire common culture, the European Union was a reaction to the subsequent ideological vacuum. That it was ever necessary was already ominous; its looming dissolution might not seem quite so inevitable if it weren’t for the all too tenuous link our bogus buildings preserve with a shared past that should never have been tampered with.