Civilizations, as well as forests, may be swept by devastating fires. But sometimes in the aftermath, the very ashes nourish the soil, and gradually a vigorous new growth rises. It is an inspiring but terrible kind of reforestation historical progress by way of apocalypse.
Phoenix industries arise from rubble. Cities recrystallize. The forest obliviously forgives the fire. In 50 years the new order may become so lush that hardly anyone remembers the shock and despair, the flames and the blackened earth and the evil. The nitrates work a miracle of cultivation. A population that had descended from Bach to barbarism may find its way, sadder but wiser, toward Bach again.
That, anyway, is the hope. And so a society, recovering, may build a memento mori a tribute to the civilizing influence of memory. In Bonn the tribute takes the form of a three-story museum called the Haus der Geschichte (House of History) an archaeological inventory through which a younger generation may trace the astonishing process of European death and rebirth over the past 50 years.
The House of History contains a file of memories, from the collapse of the Third Reich at the end of World War II to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall at the end of the cold war and, further on, to German unification and the formation of a European Community. Here are the famous Trummerfrauen, the "rubble women," who, brick by brick, street by street, cleared passages through the bombed-out cities of Germany, knocking off the mortar, piling up bricks by the tens of thousands, to be used again to make the new cities.
Here, a blouse knitted from the strings around CARE packages, and cook pots improvised from old Wehrmacht helmets, and water jugs fashioned from the spent shells of German .88-mm cannons. There, a vegetable grater made from a soup can. Shoes sewn from CARE sugar bags, the soles made from Wehrmacht web belts. A note from a bulletin board: CAN SOMEONE TELL US OF THE WHEREABOUTS OF LT. HORST WIENAND, LAST SEEN IN STALINGRAD IN OCTOBER, 1943? And a vintage jeep, one of the thousands that rolled into the Thousand Year Reich, carrying the jaunty American occupiers.
In the summer after the war, there was drought all over Europe, and then came winter. In February 1946, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff rode on a coal car for 2 1/2 days from Hanover to Hamburg, a city that British bombers had reduced almost to powder. "There were sunken ships blocking the Elbe River," she remembers. "Die Zeit's building was completely burned out. Hamburg was bad. Berlin, through which I traveled, was even worse... I was totally black from head to foot. I never believed that I would ever sleep in a white nightgown between linen sheets again."
Dönhoff's journey from the coal car to the present is a sort of model for the course that Germany itself has taken, along with much of Europe. During the entire postwar period, Dönhoff has been a powerful voice for liberalism and democracy in a nation that has groped its way toward both. Today, as editor of Die Zeit, the nation's most prestigious weekly newspaper, she is probably the best-known woman in Germany.
Europe in 1945 seemed to be in a state just short of Carthaginian extinction. Now, after a 50-year struggle to transcend its fractious past and bellicose nationalisms, it has come an astonishing distance toward prosperity, democracy, tolerance and even unity, however flawed and quarrelsome.
Self-renewal has always been an American genius; the Americans, with their enormous continent and resources, have historically been able to expand and thereby overleap their own failures. After World War II, Europe, a shambles, was forced to renew and even to reinvent itself. Like Japan, Europe was obliged to replace much of its physical plant and soon emerged with newer, more advanced factories than those of the conquering Americans.
Next Out of the Ashes