Friday, March 07, 2014

Western civilization died 70 years ago

Or maybe it would be truer to say exactly a century ago, in 1914, at the beginning of the two world wars that in many ways were phases of the same conflict.

While the allies emerged militarily and politically victorious at the end of World War II, the artistic and spiritual traditions that had sustained Europe and its derivatives through all its previous trials and disasters were buried in the ruins. They were buried with the bodies in the cemeteries and unmarked graves, and under the shattered cities.

The churches left God. The arts rejected beauty. After such horror, who could believe in their eternal value? A few humanists like Aldous Huxley, Gilbert Highet, and Jacques Barzun fought a rear-guard action to preserve what had been the lifeblood of Western culture. The devastation ultimately overcame their efforts.

All that is left today is economics, "fun," and technology. Economics is the contemporary religion, entertainment venues our places of congregation, new gadgets our icons.

Such melancholy thoughts are my take-away from watching, over the course of half a year (with breaks between discs -- it would be unbearable otherwise) The World at War. By almost universal agreement, this series made by Thames TV and first broadcast in the U.K. in 1973-74 is the best documentary on World War II ever. Because it includes commentary from many who participated in the war, nothing like it can be produced again.

Interviewees, some still looking surprisingly young three decades after the war, include British, Americans, Germans, and Japanese. Some were simply survivors, others high-ranking officials. No one expresses much regret for their personal decisions and actions, although many deplore the events and carnage.

The very first scene in the first of the 26 episodes (as well as the final scene in the last) sets the tone. We see a ruined village, Oradour-sur-Glane in France, in which almost all the occupants were murdered by the SS. It has not been rebuilt, although signage and a memorial indicate the atrocity. No one lives there.

The long series has time to show the war in depth, including Europe, the Pacific and Far East (and such nearly forgotten campaigns as Burma, where British soldiers fought under the most harrowing conditions imaginable or unimaginable, recalled onscreen by veterans). Needless to say, much of the film is immensely painful viewing. The editing is relatively kind: unsparing in picturing the gore, but only quickly enough to make its impact before cutting away.

Some of the most moving and disturbing scenes are not overtly violent. We see the Germans separating the men and women in an occupied Russian town. The men are sent away, presumably for slave labor. There are pitiful last embraces. Husbands and wives must have known they would not see each other again in this world.

Sound effects have obviously been added to much of the footage. Few battlefield cameramen were accompanied by sound recordists. Some purists might object to this ex post facto application, but it adds to the realism and immediacy.

The voice-over is contributed by Laurence Oliver, with understated drama and an air of sadness held in check. Olivier was a superb voice actor, as in every other aspect of his art.

While the war fades in our time to a few trite images (Pearl Harbor, Normandy Invasion, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, etc.), it is urgent to be reminded of how savage and encompassing it actually was. The World at War accomplishes that.

To have the grand scale of the war's madness and suffering brought home to us helps to explain, if not justify, why most of Europe has given up the defense of its heritage. It is natural to say, "Never again." But trying to abolish national borders, even inviting colonization by militant Islam, is the wrong way to insure peace.  Pretending there are no longer differences among countries and cultures, while ignoring the massive population replacement by Muslims and Africans, may well culminate in yet another terrible chapter of history.



Stogie said...

Thanks for this review. I will look for this series and purchase a copy.

David Foster said...

Much of the destruction of Western civilizational self-confidence had already taken place 20 years earlier, in what had been called The Great War. The feeling is captured well in Erich Maria Remarque's novel The Road Back. In this passage, Ernst, the protagonist, has returned to Germany after the end of the war that killed most of his classmates and fellow enlistees. He has accepted a job teaching school in a small village:

There sit the little ones with folded arms. In their eyes is still all the shy astonishment of the childish years. They look up at me so trustingly, so believingly–and suddenly I get a spasm over the heart.'
Here I stand before you, one of the hundreds of thousands of bankrupt men in whom the war destroyed every belief and almost every strength…What should I teach you? Should I tell you that in twenty years you will be dried-up and crippled, maimed in your freest impulses, all pressed mercilessly into the selfsame mould? Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive, and fire?…Should I take you to the green-and-grey map there, move my finger across it, and tell you that here love was murdered? Should I explain to you that the books you hold in your hands are but nets in which men design to snare your simple souls, to entangle you in the undergrowth of fine phrases, and in the barbed wire of falsified ideas?

…I feel a cramp begin to spread through me, as if I were turning to stone, as if I were crumbling away. I lower myself into the chair, and realize that I cannot stay here any longer. I try to take hold of something but cannot. Then after a time that has seemed to me endless, the catalepsy relaxes. I stand up. “Children,” I say with difficulty, “you may go now.”'

The little ones look at me to make sure I am not joking. I nod once again. “Yes, that is right–go and play today–go and play in the wood–or with your dogs and your cats–you need not come back till tomorrow–”