Richard Strauss wrote these words in 1945 shortly after he completed Metamorphosen, a study for 23 solo strings: “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom“. Here is that sublime piece conducted by the great Herbert von Karajan.
It occasionally quotes Beethoven’s Eroica. Other than the above quote from the composer’s diary, scholars continue to discuss the meaning of this work. I find the idea of an elegy for the downfall of Germany and the whole of Europe in ruins, with millions of lives lost, altogether plausible. Some lewdly suggest that Strauss was a Nazi sympathiser. His initial sympathies for the Hitler regime rapidly evaporated. He feared for his family’s lives, especially his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, some of whom ended up in concentration camps. How much would any of us have done in his place?
This seems to be an ideal piece to contemplate Remembrance Day as we consider man’s ultimate folly in warfare. Syria today is London, Dresden or Nuremberg in 1945. Culture and civilisation are lost and countless people are dead. When I drive along the coast of the D-Day beaches to Caen and the Bessin area to Sainte-Mère Eglise, there is a German military cemetery. They too died doing what they believed to be their duty, hopefully loving what of their country transcended the Nazis. This cemetery invites us also to pray for the souls of the fallen enemy soldiers as well as those who fought on our Allied side.
I was born fourteen short years after the end of World War II, and only occasionally saw ruins of buildings destroyed by the bombing, including a church near St Paul’s Cathedral in London. I did not suffer those dark days, but I could in my childhood feel the anguish in my grandfather who was a prisoner in an Oflag camp near Linz (now in Austria) and my parents who saw the devastation of the bombings.
Two world wars in the century of my birth destroyed Europe and civilisation. We are still paying the price now. The collective memory is long and the suffering is still present. Man’s inhumanity to man was supposed to have been condemned and hanged at Nuremberg, but the basis of the same old ideology is still there in the “herd” mentality so denounced by Nietzsche in his agony – fascist or socialist. Tweedledum and Tweedledee are essentially the same smoke of Satan.
We can’t do much about the political situations in our countries and the underlying conflicts, but we can discover our own souls and come to terms with them, enter into communion with a God who is Father and truly cares for us all, and thereby to transcend the bestiality and the cruelty of whoever it is at a given time. Perhaps if all those people died in the prime of their lives, it was to teach us this.
We will remember them…