Tuesday, February 10, 2015

War is terrible

The cathedral of Mainz burns, by Georg Schneider (ca. 1800)
Such is the conclusion one might draw from Goethe's reaction to the campaigns in which he participated in 1792 and 1793. I have reached this point in Safranski's biography. In 1792 Goethe was living in happy domesticity in Weimar and was not eager to join Carl August. Nevertheless, the allies were confident that the revolutionary forces would be quickly defeated. In one of his first letters to Christiane (Sept. 2, 1792), he writes that they expect to be in Paris soon and that he will return with a souvenir or two. In Campagne in Frankreich, written three decades after the event, Goethe portrays the disastrous campaign, especially the mud in which the forces were trapped and the lack of provisioning.

Safranski writes that there is no independent witness of Goethe's statement in Campagne –– von hier und heute geht eine neue Eoche der Weltgeschichte aus, und ihr könnt' sagen, ihr seid dabei gewesen." He did write something similar to Knebel, however, on September 27, 1792: "Es ist mir sehr lieb, daß ich das alles mit Augen gesehen habe und daß ich, wenn von dieser wichtigen Epoche die Rede ist sagen kann: et quorum pars minima fui." The middle of November he wrote to Voigt: "Dieser Feldzug wird als eine der unglücklichsten Unternehmungen in den Jahrbüchern der Welt eine traurige Geschichte machen."

Map of the siege of Mainz, 1793
Not even a year later Goethe was present at the siege of Mainz, which has already produced a refugee catastrophe. First, the French forces drove out 2,000 people who refused to take the revolutionary oath, among them clerics, Jews,  and officials. Later all non-combattants were expelled –– the aged, along with women and children, who were left to their fate, without resources. The bombardment of the city lasted three weeks, and when the siege was over the victors took terrible revenge, according to Safranski, which was followed by "Pogromstimmung" among the surviving population. (Here is a good report, in German.) On August 3, 1793, Goethe wrote to Jacobi of the effect on him of the events: "Mich wandelt in meiner jetztigen Lage eine Art Stupor an und ich finde den trivialen Ausdruck der Verstand steht mir still, trefflich um die Lage meines Geistes auszudrucken." One result was Reineke Fuchs, in which the human atrocities are reflected in the animal kingdom.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the Islamic State in Sinjar, walk towards the Syrian border
Goethe's reaction took on additional resonance this morning. I was at the gym, where one cannot avoid the TV monitors, and as I worked out for 45 minutes on the elliptical CNN beat to death, so to speak, the death of Kyla Mueller, the twenty-six-year-old ISIS hostage. Picture after picture showed the smiling young woman, in some photos bearing signs demanding "justice in Darfur" or the cessation of the genocide there. She seems to have worked in several war-torn or impoverished areas in recent years, including Israel, the Palestinian territory, and India. Most recently she was on the Turkish-Syrian border assisting in the efforts to aid refugees pouring out of Syria. She was kidnapped in August 2013, as she left a hospital operated by Doctors without Borders, when ISIS moved into that area.

My twenties are too far behind me to judge Kyla's motives not only for helping others but also for suffering. As she wrote to her father in 2011: “Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love. I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” She seems to have been a remarkable young woman, as can be seen in this letter that she wrote from captivity.

The conventions that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to spare non-combatants as well as journalists are not honored in the present stage of war. Human shields have been a standard instrument of Middle Eastern "freedom fighters." Westerners, accustomed to a more civilized standard of living, tend to become excessively valedictorial when confronted with the death of an idealistic young woman like Kyla Mueller, who becomes representative of "all that is best in the West." Thus, the non-stop coverage on CNN.

Picture credits: Hundert Jahre Mainzer Dom; International Business Times

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