Memorials

Walking around Paris, it’s easy to reflect on how new America is in comparison to parts of this ancient city.  We anticipate later this week viewing some of the ruins of Roman buildings a stone’s throw from Notre Dame that date back to before the birth of Christ.  That’s a lot of history in a small area, something we can’t match in the States.

But what struck me most is the nature of some of the history.  On the high-speed train journey from Strasbourg to Paris we mused about the horrors that Europe has endured.  Passing quaint little towns nestled in the rural clefts of hills it is hard to believe that just 70 years ago or so that land was enemy occupied.  Bizarre to realize that the enemy is the economic partner Germany, and the border between these two countries is virtually invisible.  No papers to check.  No documents to produce.  Stranger still to think that these two countries have been in various wars with one another for centuries, yet now we live in a brief era of peace that seems so natural as to conceive of yet another war as a virtual impossibility.

Walking towards the backside of Notre Dame we found the Memorial des Martyrs de le Deportation.  An unassuming area at the eastern tip of Ile de la Cite, it is dedicated to the 200,000 French who were deported by the Nazis during World War II and died.  A mile or so to the north, on an otherwise unassuming concrete wall, was a plaque commemorating the fact that 11,000 children – many under the age of three years – were deported with the complicity of the Vichy French government (there is a picture of the plaque we saw here, but you have to scroll down this sports teams’ page to see it [in French]).

Seventy years ago, and yet the French now live peacefully with the Germans, exchanging economic and political benefits as well as tourists.  It’s hard for me to comprehend.  It has been one hundred and fifty years since the closest event in our history – the Civil War.  Yet in some ways we’re still bitter with one another, those scars still only scabbed over rather than healed.

Here in Europe, because of a simple change of political leadership, a force was unleashed which devastated the continent.  A force that systematically rounded up and murdered millions of people because they were different, because they didn’t agree with leadership positions.  Governments murdered their own citizens.  People who had lived for generations were suddenly uprooted, the enemy, disposable, deprived of their humanity and then their lives.  Neighbors with grudges exacted their revenge as informants.

As Americans we tend to think of all this as something that happened over there.  We came, we fought, we kicked ass, we went home.  We are by and large oblivious to the fact that it could happen here.  We are too busy with our comfortable lives, and so disenchanted by the options available to us, to pay much attention to politics.  Yet 80 years ago or so a man legally and publicly elected to office unleashed upon his own people and two continents a bloodletting of epic proportions.  Other changes of power, perhaps less legal, but more devastating, have ravished the former Soviet Union and China and Cambodia and any number of other places.

If we believe it can’t happen here, we are blind to the signs of such a thing building.  Blind because it has always been someone else, somewhere else.  Blind because we have always considered ourselves the cavalry that rides in to save the day, rather than the damsel bound to the railroad track in need of saving.  We don’t have the cultural or historical metaphors to warn us if, or more likely when, we begin down a road that leads to self-destruction.

Here  there are reminders everywhere.  Plaques.  Memorials.  American flags on the tops of hills in the middle of nowhere, grateful reminders and salutes to the foreign troops that, once upon a time, gave their lives to free the lives of the French.  Everywhere there are reminders of the depths of the depravity that lurks in each human heart.  And this continent’s recorded history – much older and deeper than our own – says that even such memorials have not been and will not be enough to prevent something similar from happening again.

It is an unfortunate reality that it is far easier to give one’s time and money to building and visiting somber memorials to the atrocities of human history than it is to live our lives so that such memorials will not be necessary.

3 Responses to “Memorials”

  1. A Wandering Memory Says:

    Interesting read from an American point of view and I love your final paragraph… A Wandering Memory

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