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The Message of the Ruins:
Reading Devastation

by Robert J. Meindl


I don’t know if Maria Wickert was moved by Gower’s arguments on a personal level. I suspect she was a secular humanist and a cultural Christian like so many academics of the western world in her time and ours. However, without suggesting that she would have come to Gower’s religious conclusions, I imagine she would have been taken by his remarks and related them to her nation’s misfortune and to her personal circumstances. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that all Germany was involved in just such thoughts.

Throughout Germany in the first months of peace the question of responsibility and accountability was being raised and discussed. On October 18-19, 1945, for instance, a group of prominent German theologians and churchmen met in St. Mark’s evangelical church in Stuttgart, the capital of Swabia, likewise laid waste by the bombing, to try and make sense of what had happened to their faith during the Nazi years and determine why it had been unable to prevent or at least substantially mitigate the many horrific deeds perpetrated by the rulers of Germany from 1933 to 1945.

These men were already prominent, Martin Niemöller the most famous, and on their respective paths to positions of prominence in the nation’s post-war experience. After two days of meetings they issued the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, which acknowledged complicity in the recent catastrophe by the failure of the German church to act in accordance with its own teachings. Portions of this text express their remorse with considerable elegance:

Mit grossem Schmerz sagen wir: Durch uns ist unendliches Leid über viele Völker und Länder gebracht worden. Was wir unseren Gemeinden oft bezeugt haben, das sprechen wir jetzt im Namen der ganzen Kirche aus: Wohl haben wir lange Jahre hindurch im Namen Jesu Christi gegen den Geist gekämpft, der im nationalsocialistischen Gewaltregiment seinen furchtbaren Ausdruck gefunden hat; aber wir klagen uns an, daß wir nicht mutiger bekannt, nicht treuer gebetet, nicht fröhlicher geglaubt und nicht brennender geliebt haben. With great anguish we say: By us infinite pain has been brought upon many peoples and lands. That which we often testified to in our congregations we express now in the name of the entire church: Indeed we fought through long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the spirit that found its frightful expression in National Socialist brutality, but we accuse ourselves that we did not witness more courageously, pray more faithfully, believe more joyously, and love more ardently.

The authors conclude with the hope that the spirit of violence and revenge will be suppressed and invoke a powerful Christian hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, as their anthem for a new age.

Some Germans, however, were unhappy with what was regarded by many as a tepid declaration of responsibility that suggested the church had been truer to its principles than the facts warranted, and, in 1947, Hans-Joachim Iwand, Karl Barth, and Martin Niemöller (again) co-authored the Darmstadt Statement.

This document was the byproduct of a meeting of the German Lutheran Church held 5-6 July in that city, which, searching out the causes of German guilt for the nation’s behavior under National Socialism, accepted responsibility for recent German history in much more explicit terms and accused the German church of indulging its anti-socialist tendencies to the extent that it had made itself a willing partner of extreme conservative ideology.

In four powerful paragraphs beginning with the anaphora “We went astray,” the authors present categories of failure that characterize the German church’s behavior. This Darmstädter Wort was considered a scandal by many in its rejection of long-held assumptions about how Germany should comport itself and probably more than any other statement defined the discussion of accountability that continues into our day.

The most profound and moving conclusions on the subject of survival and the reading of ruins in the years following World War II were written by Wickert’s contemporary, Paul Celan, who, although his poetry is intensely personal, speaks to universal concerns that implicate the entire world, in particular to the circumstances of those who have survived history’s disasters.

A Bukovinan Jew who survived the Holocaust and wrote about it in the language of the Nazis themselves, Celan has been credited by many with salvaging the German language from the codifications that had been embedded in it by a long tradition of lyric poets extending from Hölderlin to Rilke, Trakl, and George, codifications taken over by the Nazis and extended by them to perverted conclusions that led Germany into madness.

Just as Gower employs the figure of a ship in danger upon a stormy sea to represent England’s plight during the Peasants’ Revolt, and just as Karl Krolow uses the citation from Petronius to suggest the central reality of his own post-war world, so, too, does Celan employ a nautical metaphor to clarify what had happened to Europe in his lifetime, representing himself as a lone survivor of a great storm or perhaps a great battle, adrift upon an empty sea. Here from his 1967 volume of poems entitled Atemwende (“Breathturn”) is his image of the survivor:

Mit erdwärts gesungenen Masten
fahren die Himmelwracks.
In dieses Holzlied
beisst du dich fest mit den Zähnen.
Du bist der liedfeste
With earthward sung masts
Heaven’s wrecks are sailing.
Into this woodsong
You bite hard with your teeth.
You are the songfast

There has been a catastrophe in heaven. Looking up from the floor of the ocean of oxygen and nitrogen in which we live, we see capsized hulks afloat amidst their own debris, masts pointing downward instead of heavenward. Ships managed by intricate systems of spars and yards, cordage, rigging and sails, derived over many centuries of dedicated commitment by the best naval architects, proved inadequate to the storms or weapons that swept across the world ocean and left them shattered wreckage, capsized and adrift.

In the water there is a survivor, the “you” that Celan so often addresses in his verse, with whom he conducts the endless dialogue that distinguishes and even defines his poetry. There are no rescuers in sight, no sails on the horizon. The survivor is holding on by his teeth to a piece of wreckage characterized as “this woodsong,” call it if you will Veni Creator Spiritus, a remnant of the vast structures that once comprised the heavenly system the western world had agreed upon as the solution that made sense of and gave significance to human existence. No more.

After the Final Solution we need more — or perhaps less. The poem’s last lines suggest the survivor must look within for a future. “You are the song-fast pennant,” the poet tells us, you the only little piece of cloth still fluttering in the winds where once clouds of sails proudly and majestically made their way, a brave little burgee pennant that sings its own song of life, no grand chorus of voices backed by swelling organs but a lone voice and spirit doing its best to survive and at the same time contribute to mankind’s ongoing conversation with itself.

Maria Wickert’s personal response to the national catastrophe was that of Germans across their land: she picked up the pieces of a disrupted and shattered life and put them back together. She welcomed her husband back from captivity, organized a home in which children could be properly raised and family life conducted, and resumed her studies.

As workers in the streets patiently carried away, brick by brick and stone by stone, the wreckage of war, so too did German intellectuals assume their tasks anew, returning from the war, from exile abroad and within, and from prisons outside and across Germany to redefine and to reconstruct the proud edifice of the German academy.

The results have been extraordinary, and the German university has once again taken its place in the forefront of the world intellectual community. One small piece of its recovery was shaped by a determined woman who in the midst of the chaos of her own world patiently analyzed and recovered for a world audience a neglected work of English literature that had shown a nation long ago the path to national health dictated by its own history and belief system. I find hers a remarkable accomplishment.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert J. Meindl
Professor of English, emeritus
California State University, Sacramento

Editor’s notes

Professor Meindl’s article is republished here by invitation. Bewildering Stories is grateful to the author and to Prof. Irmengard Rauch, at the Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics and Semiotic Analysis, where it first appeared.

The 2nd edition of Professor Meindl’s translation of Maria Wickert’s Studien zu John Gower is forthcoming at Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Sources at Arizona State University.

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Not exactly on the topic of this article but related to it: a discussion of a review article on 100 Poets Against the War can be found in “Go Tell the Spartans...

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