Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notes from Heidelberg

-If you want to see how long-lived civic effects can operate, just compare Mannheim and Heidelberg. Both have quite famous universities. One also has the BASF chemical factory next door, and hence was bombed flat in World War 2. The other one is fairly well preserved. Hence, 70 years later, one is a kind of ugly but functional university town, and the other is chock a block with Japanese tourists. The relative price of old German buildings got a lot higher after WW2.

-Regarding the above, the spectre of the war still hangs heavy over the country, with little reminders like this everywhere you go. I well understand the rationale for why the towns were bombed, brutal though it was. If you don't believe me, read Paul Fussel's arrestingly-titled 'Thank God for the Atom Bomb'. Still, when you see how pretty Heidelberg is and how ugly Mannheim is, it made me sad for how much of German history was lost in WW2. But then I realised how much I was doing exactly what the War Nerd skewered so well in his great column on why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta:
But there does happen to be one demographic—an arguably insane one, indeed—which does not accept that war is cruel: the bitter white Southern neo-Confederate one to which Leigh belongs. For them, war was wonderful when it was just brave Southern gentlemen killing 360,000 loyal American soldiers.
That was the good war, as far as they were concerned. War became “intrinsically cruel” for them when that dastardly Sherman started visiting its consequences on rural Georgia, burning or destroying all supplies that could be used by the Confederate armies which had been slaughtering American troops for several years. Oh, that bad, bad Sherman!
You know what’s worse than a little girl asking “Mister Soldier” not to burn her house? Getting your leg sawed off by a drunken corpsman after a Minie ball fired by traitors turned your femur into bone shards. Or getting a letter that your son died of gangrene in one of those field hospitals where the screaming never stopped, and the stench endured weeks after the army had moved on. 
Of course, this is all lost on the Phil Leighs of the world, who—for reasons that cut deep into the ideology of the American right wing—always take burnt houses too seriously, and dead people far too lightly. To them, burning a house is a crime, while shooting a Yankee soldier in the eye is just part of war’s rich tapestry. So their horror of messing with private property joins their sense of emasculation, and their total ignorance of what war on one’s home ground actually means, to form a sediment that could never have been cured, even temporarily, except by the river of armed humanity Sherman sent pouring south and east from Atlanta on November 15, 1864. That cold shower woke them for a little while, at least—long enough to quicken the end of the war and save thousands of lives.
He's right, of course. In the context of the horror and atrocity of World War 2's 50-odd million dead, it is obscene to be worrying about lost buildings. The lost buildings, however, are salient and visible. The mountains of corpses, by contrast, are long gone.

 -I was talking to a German man, age early 30s or so. He was saying how his grandfather lived in Leipzig, which was also heavily bombed by the incendiary fire-bomb method. But the thing that his grandfather figured out is that the way these bombs worked is that they were just a flammable gel dropped into the house - the effects came because they set other stuff on fire, but only once they'd had a chance to get the blaze going. Of course, this always happened, because people hide in their basements during bombing raids. But the guy's grandfather decided instead to keep large piles of sand and buckets of water on all floors of his house. He put his family in the basement, and when a bomb went through the roof, he extinguished it. When the bombing raid was over, every other house on the street had been burnt to the ground, except his.

-Walking up the steep hill to the castle in Heidelberg, it gives one a strong sense of the wisdom of Sun Tzu's observation that 'it is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill'. I would not like to advance up that road while fighting hand-to-hand combat with swords and getting showered with arrows.

-For a reactionary like me, there is something quite stirring in seeing a castle with statues of kings from hundreds of years in the past. The tradition hangs thick in the air, in a way that is hard to describe. We indeed live in a kingless age.

-From the castle, I watched the sun set for the first time in quite a while. Because of the fog/smog/haze, the sun was a deep red while still relatively high in the sky, and actually faded into nothing before reaching the horizon. The last time I remember seeing this, incidentally, was 15 years ago in Munich. Perhaps there's something about German sunsets.

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