The Memory of Europe
Standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe — I knew I was in the presence of a memory older than my homeland. This is the memory of Europe that memorialized romance, the arts, enlightenment thinkers, wine, food, ethnic skirmishes, and within living memory — the Shoah (Holocaust) and its unfathomable barbarism. This Europe, bound together by signs and symbols of its glamorous and barbarous past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it is one that remains perpetually mortgaged to that past.
The history of Europe evident in its architecture, calligraphy, and shibboleths — is punctuated with tales of violence, resilience, blood and gore, and a revisionist historical lens of victory and triumph. Before this trip — I read Barbara Tuchman’s World War I book: “Guns of August”. Hence, nothing has troublingly fascinated me more about Europe than the barbarism, death, destruction, ethnic, national animus that plagued the so called “civilized” peoples of the world.
Paris, the entire city and its peripheries, is an open-air museum — memorializing past wars, dead patriots, and the obvious destruction of ethnic minorities. Walking in the streets of Paris — I could not help but picture the Third Reich’s invasion of the old city — with the Fuehrer and his blitzkrieg staggering roughshod into the heart of the Bois de Boulogne, subjugating and destroying millions of French lives, some of whom are still alive today. This is a Europe of living memory, that led the world into two major wars, which resulted in catastrophic macabre — anecdotally and arguably comparable only to stories of the Old Testament scripture.
To boot, I took a road trip from Paris to Brussels — and driving by the Somme Region of Northern France — I pictured the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm — putting their Schlieffen Plan to the test. I also pictured 70 years ago when the German Wehrmacht marauded everything from the Ardennes Forest to the River Marne, resulting in the deaths of countless French.
Entering Belgium, where the phrase, gallant little Belgium was born — I walked into yet another open-air museum, memorializing their dead patriots of the great wars. Belgium, like France, suffered awfully in the hands of their neighbor — the German colossus. In short, the memory of Europe is that of sporadic good times and never-ending ethnic wars.
Particularly, World War One has been an obsession of mine for a good minute — because it taught me that — we never learn from history and that history is not there for us to learn from (Never Again) — but to memorialize (Museums, Public Holidays). It also taught me how arbitrary whims, national pride, led nations into unimaginable sacrifices, in the process, perfecting the mass industrialized killing machines of contemporary warfare. In this war — sophisticated human sacrifices were made, in the name of the nation, to the God of nations, whatever the heck that was.
On my last day in Paris — I visited the Versailles Palace, on the peripheries of the city — where the Treaty that ended the so called War to End all wars was signed. Versailles, like many other historical places, reconciled my conflicted thoughts on history and the “othering” of evil; that, we, including myself, are all capable of evils of the great wars; that, we should not allow evil to become inhuman, amorphous and globulous, to make sure that we don’t get lazy, that the contours of particular evils are delineated and precise. It is this understanding that we live on the edge of the volcano, that the volcano is in us. We are the volcano. We, humans, are the evil.
Which brings us to the reality that, all nations, in this context, European countries, like to begin their story with the chapter that most advantages them. In token thereof, for every Arc de Triomphe, there is a Waterloo. For every Louvre, there is a Treblinka. For every Victor Hugo, there is a Marshall Petain. In other words, the history of Europe, like most of human history, is awfully complex and multifaceted — and as such — should be dealt with nuance and a sense of humanism.
To that end, do not study or engage history to merely boost your self-esteem. Study, engage history to lose your religion, ideology, beliefs or maybe in the end — gain them. But seeing the limits of all is us — you start to understand why people might appeal to some higher, more certain, fierce being. In the French case — they lost their religion, their belief in God, and continue to struggle with the maxim that birthed the French state a la Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.
Visit Europe — if you can — it is a fascinating piece of real estate, of antiquated ruins, of religion, of epistemology, of violence, of a memory older than Washington and Jefferson.
From the banks of the River Seine,