Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Thing of Beauty

Keat's lovely poem assures us that:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness...

Having written in the last blog about the darkest hour of Germany's history, I want to leave you with some images of the many beautiful sites we saw.  We sailed from Amsterdam to Vienna, sailing on the Rhine River first, then connecting through the Main-Danube Canal, and finally ending our journey on the Danube.  The scenes below are arranged geographically along that trip, from north to south.

After World War II ended, there were many cities in Germany that were largely destroyed.  Think Berlin or Dresden.  Of course, such places have been rebuilt.  The winning side mounted various programs to force along the rebuilding.  But not all of Germany suffered such devastating damage.  

We visited many smaller towns that did not have military significance during the war, and were not part of the war machine.  Their lack of significance in the war effort meant that many of these places were largely untouched:  Rüdesheim, Miltenberg, Würzburg, Bamberg, Rothenberg, Regensburg.  

So, before we leave this trip--take in just a few of the scenes of beauty we enjoyed.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Those Who Do Not Remember the Past

It was the philosopher George Santayana who was credited with the saying: those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

That sobering thought haunted me as we spent a day in Nuremberg.  This city's name is now associated with the aftermath of World War II, and the Allies' efforts to hold the Nazis responsible for their horrific "crimes against humanity."  It was here that the Nuremberg trials were held--the first time that the conduct of a war was put on trial.  Twenty four major leaders of the Nazi war effort were tried, with many of them being convicted and some being sentenced to death by hanging.  Some, such as Field Marshall Göring, the most prominent Nazi to be tried and convicted, requested the honorable death by firing squad.  That request was denied, so Göring cheated the Allies anyway when he procured an ampule of cyanide which he bit into and died.

The windows of Court Room 600 where the Nuremberg Trials were held

Nuremberg was chosen as the site for these trials precisely because of Hitler's having used the city as a staging location for his huge Nazi rallies.  We visited two sites where these rallies took place--Zeppelin Field and Congress Hall.

The interior of Zeppelin Field

A photo of the projected appearance of Congress Hall

The interior of Congress Hall today, a deteriorating shell of a building that was never completed

These two huge structures were planned for construction.  Hitler had designed an 11 acre site with a wide sweeping avenue, a huge field (Zeppelin Field) for assembling the thousands of Nazi party faithful and Hitler Youth along with members of the SS, and Congress Hall where rallies would be held.  Zeppelin Field is the site made famous in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will".  For these Nazi rallies, the field was decorated with Nazi flags, and featured row upon row of gathered Nazi faithfuls, all held in the thrall of Adolph Hitler who emerged from the center of the stage.  Congress Hall was designed and building was begun but never fully completed.  The architect for this grand project was Albert Speer, one of those also tried and convicted during the Nuremberg Trials.

What is so sobering about this visit to Nuremberg?  Well, I kept having two thoughts:  first, what happened in Germany that led up to the atrocities committed?  and how could an entire nation be pulled into seemingly blind compliance.  Second, can it happen again?

Historians have written tomes pondering the first question.  Germany too has begun to come to grips with this question.  For a time, immediately following the war, a kind of national shame gripped the country and people did not want to talk about what happened.  Denial was in surplus supply.  Now, Germany has begun serious efforts to face its own past.  Now housed within the Congress Hall is a museum called the Documentation Center  Nazi Party Rally Grounds.  We spent a portion of one morning there--and could really have spent much more time there.  It is an overwhelming experience.  The rise, expansion, domination and eventual fall of the Nazi party is the central focus of this museum.  

As we moved from one display to the next, we could barely absorb the enormity and horror of all the information.  Frankly, it becomes mind-numbing.  And, the temptation is great to just turn away.  But we kept moving along, reading the descriptions, looking at the video clips, trying to take it all in.

It is, of course, the second question that really troubles me.  Because, I think those of us who are citizens of the United States have been honing our forgetting skills.  We repeat our own mistakes, and we also seem to repeat other nations' mistakes.  

I was particularly troubled to read in the Documentation Center how the press was used to distort the truth.  Please understand--this is not a screed against the so-called liberal media.  Frankly, I think the touted image of the media as liberal is completely bogus.  What I am most frightened by is the way in which media is used today to convey a pre-determined point of view.  The fact that a national news channel would use as its slogan "fair and balanced" and then do anything BUT report in such a manner should scare us all.

Of late, during political campaigns, comparisons to Nazis are liberally applied.  You may hear some politician or some pundit opine that doing something--oh, such as passing the health reform act--is just like what the Nazis did.  Well, no--my friends.  What the Nazis did was to target almost every group of people that was outside the proclaimed norm of the white so-called Aryan race.  So who did that include?  We know it included Jews--but it also included gypsies, labor union members, epileptics, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, pastors both Catholic and Protestant.  

While our river cruise trip was lovely, relaxing, and refreshing, it was also sobering.  We need to remember the ugly truths of history, and not just enjoy the beauty of a reborn nation.  If we remember the past, perhaps we are not condemned to repeat it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cruising Down a River

When last we chatted, I hinted at an upcoming vacation.  Well, vacation has come and gone.  My husband and I went on a cruise--more precisely we cruised down (and up) a river.  We began in Amsterdam on a river boat cruise which first sailed on the Rhine River.  Through the ingenious use of linking canals, we eventually ended up on the Danube at our final destination Vienna.

Over the next several posts, I will share bits of this trip.  In addition to being a much welcome break from the stresses and physical exertions of helping my dad and step-mom close out their retirement cottage and move into a sheltered care apartment, this trip appealed to an historic curiosity I had.  More on that in just a bit.

Amsterdam is one city we have visited several times.  Its reputation for tolerance is well-deserved.  You quickly learn, for example, that a coffee shop does not JUST sell coffee.  This history of tolerance gives Amsterdam a special place in our families' histories.  Both my husband and I come from families whose ancestors left Europe--specifically Switzerland and Germany--centuries ago.  They were Anabaptists, people whose beliefs clashed with both Catholic and Protestant reformers.  They were persecuted by both sides, and were sometimes killed for their beliefs.  Consequently, they fled their birth countries, traveled UP the Rhine River (which flows into the North Sea) and landed in Amsterdam.  Just as with the so-called Pilgrims from England, they stayed in Amsterdam for a time before making their way to the New World in America.

Even today, the Rhine River is a superhighway.  We saw many other ships, mostly hauling cargo.  These ships costs millions, so few individuals can own their own ship.  Instead, those who operate the ships are under contract with larger companies.  Many families live on their ships.  We saw most ships with one or two cars on the back--transportation for when in port.  Ships have living quarters as part of their construction, and even had play yards, all glassed in.  Several times, we saw children playing on board--talk about going along with dad or mom to work.

In the course of our trip--from Amsterdam to Vienna--we went through 66 different locks.  The tallest of these locks were some 80 to 90 feet high.  Sailing west to east, we first went through locks that slowly increased our elevation.  We eventually crossed the continental divide of Europe, at which point the rivers flowed into the Black Sea.

On our second full day of sailing, we sailed along the Rhine River Gorge.  This is the most picturesque portion of the Rhine River, complete with tunnel entrances disguised as castles, as well as REAL castles.  The story on the tunnel entrances had to do with bombing during World War II.  Allied bombers tried not to bomb any ancient buildings intentionally.   Rail travel was so vital to the German war effort; consequently, the German High Command ordered tunnel entrances disguised as castles.  Apparently that Allied resolve did not always hold--think of the leveling of the city of Dresden.  

The other constant scenery along the Rhine were vineyards.  Rows and rows of grape vines.  Our trip was early in the spring, so the greenery was just beginning to sprout.

We had daily stops along the way, and as you journey with me, I will show you some of the enchanting little towns and villages we visited.

All aboard for the rest of the journey--cruising down a river.
P.S. this post is my 601st--so I have now passed the 600 mark.