Two antiquarian books lie before me. The first is a copy of George Wharton Edwards’ Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France, published in 1917 after the author, an American impressionist painter, traveled through the battle-scarred cities and villages along the Western Front, documenting the dreadful destruction wrought in northern France and Belgium by incessant German artillery barrages. The second, surely one of my most prized possessions, is a copy of Etienne Moreau-Nélaton’s La Cathédrale de Reims, bound in a rich brown shagreen with gorgeous green marbled paper covers, also published during the First World War, in the year 1915, as shells were still pulverizing the book’s very subject matter. Both volumes are relics of an infamous historical moment, when Europe descended into unparalleled violence, when German soldiers burned the Louvain Library to the ground, when architectural gems like Rheims Cathedral, Ypres’ Cloth Hall, and the Arras Hôtel de Ville were reduced to ash and dust and calcined rubble.
“To destroy the relics of the past,” wrote the historian D.C. Watt, “is, even in small things, a kind of amputation, a self-mutilation not so much of limbs as of the memory and the imagination.” There were Germans who positively reveled in the cultural as well as the human mutilations being inflicted on the French, the Belgians, and their cities. Rudolf Herzog, a best-selling novelist wounded in 1914 at a clash near Rethel in the Ardennes, channeled his frustrations into a sacrilegious and frankly revolting poem on the bombardment of Rheims Cathedral, which concludes:
There you lie, a brooding silence all around…
Like a dying man struggling for breath
Who, with lead in his breast and his limbs heavy,
Harks whether the death-bell tolls for him —
And the bells in the double-tower cathedral
Sing no song, the blessing is over,
From the platform your hail of cannonballs cursed,
Then we shut with lead your house of idol-worship: Rheims.
Batteries — fire! And the thunder rolls and rumbles: Rheims.
Another artist who should have known better, the expressionist painter Franz Nölken, could not understand all the fuss over the atrocities at Rheims. In a September 30, 1914, letter to a friend of his serving in the German artillery, Nölken complained that
The sanctimonious blather in the press and among sensitive people about the shot-up cathedrals like Rheims is dreadful. Just make sure you smash everything up; in the first place the French don’t deserve better, and secondly our good pieces will rise in value. The statues in Rheims are very nice, for sure, those in Bamburg, for example, are no worse; and would people be so outraged if they were shot to ruins.
Nölken tried to avoid army service, seeking to leave the sort of destruction he cheered on at home to the professionals, only to be drafted in 1917 and killed at La Capelle just a week before the war ended. In his life, however, he had espoused the sort of barbarism, vandalism, and profound inhumanity that George Wharton Edwards and Etienne Moreau-Nélaton opposed in these two now obscure, long out-of-print masterpieces that I have here before me.
Yet Edwards and Moreau-Nélaton had very different approaches to their crusade for cultural heritage preservation in the midst of an almost apocalyptic conflict. Edwards had been educated in Paris and Antwerp, and loved France and the Low Countries, spending as much of his life as possible there, but he was still an outsider, and of an artistic temperament, and perhaps had come to think of Europe as more of a vast open-air museum than a living, breathing civilization. His reaction to the bombardment of Rheims, during which as many as 7,500 shells were fired at the city each day, and to the destruction of the famed cathedral, was to “pray fervently” that “no so-called restoration may be attempted or allowed. Let no imitations of stone, glass or marble caricature its vanished glories … Let it remain, we pray, the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Rheims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed; deleta est Carthago.”
This is a sort of defeatism, however well-intentioned. The reason Etienne Moreau-Nélaton spent the early months of 1915 so hard at work on his magisterial La Cathédrale de Reims, with its painstaking analysis of the cathedral’s history and its architectural features, and with its 135 inset plates in rotogravure, was not simply to engage in an academic exercise, or to keep the French painter, collector, and art historian’s mind off the danger his beloved son and son-in-law were facing in the trenches. It was a heroic effort to preserve the innumerable details of this famously ornate High Gothic structure so that it might rise again, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the guerre mondiale. I was fortunate enough to secure this volume of La Cathédrale de Reims from a bookseller located in Paris, on the Rue Henri Barbusse, and as it happened the antiquarians there had provided some additional documents that its previous owner had slipped inside the book’s cover. These include pamphlets relating to the establishment of the Société des Amis de la Cathédrale de Reims, founded with the goal of repairing the site after the conclusion of the German’s “atrocious bombardment,” a project backed by various ambassadors and cultural luminaries including François Mauriac, Paul Claudel, and Monsieur le Vicomte de Noailles. The Société was adamant, pace Edwards, that Rheims was not to remain a pile of rubble, however evocative that would be. Its edifice would be reconstructed, its statues pieced together, its stained glass windows recreated and reinstalled. Worshipers would return, tourists would again marvel at the soaring towers and intricate carvings, and the skyline of Rheims would be graced not by a toppled structure filled with German lead, but a soaring example of French civilization at its finest.
As one of France’s most powerful lieu de mémoire, and as a functioning place of worship, where Catholics had gone for centuries to worship at the altar of the ever-living God, the notion that Rheims Cathedral should be left in such a sorry state, “consumed by fire, soaked in blood,” simply to prove some point about man’s inhumanity to man, was unacceptable to men like Mauriac and Claudel. It could be rebuilt, it was rebuilt, and it stands today, an eloquent rebuke to barbarians like Herzog and Nölken. As Moreau-Nélaton put it in La Cathédrale de Reims:
La cathédrale entière respire la bonne humeur d’une société sans morgue et sans contrainte. Point de mines renfrognées et revêches…Voilà ce que n’ont point les Allemands. Voilà ce qu’ils nous envient; voilà ce qui aiguise leur féroce jalousie. [The entire cathedral exudes the good humor of a society without arrogance and without constraint. No scowls and surly looks…. That’s what the Germans don’t have. This is why they envy us; this is what sharpens their fierce jealousy.]
Jealousy on such a scale can lead to the enormities that took place in Rheims. But pride in one’s native land, and a desire to preserve what is best about it, can overcome such enormities, and safeguard a future that includes the glories of the past as well as those to come. That, at least, is the lesson I have been taken from these two beautiful old books laid out in front of me, Moreau-Nélaton’s in particular.
It is indeed a war of annihilation, a war openly waged with the intention of destroying the independent political and cultural existence of Ukraine.
War has again come to Europe. The beautiful Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Chernihiv, Sumy, and others are being indiscriminately shelled, civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and invading Russians and their Chechen henchmen, having committed brazen crimes against peace, now compound their sins with widespread war crimes, increasingly frustrated as they are by the unexpectedly fierce resistance they face on every front. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have already perished, and we are seeing cultural sites pulverized on a daily basis. Attacks on the Kyiv region, for example, resulted in damage to the Ivankiv Museum, and the burning of 25 works by Mariia Pryimachenko, the renowned folk art painter whose primitivist work astounded Marc Chagall, and prompted Pablo Picasso to proclaim, “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.” The Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial was damaged in recent strikes, and all across the country churches, theaters, museums, and other architectural masterpieces and lieux de mémoire are at risk of total destruction.
It is, as the Ukrainian poet, novelist, and Kharkiv resident Serhiy Zhadan has stated, “a war of annihilation.” Not necessarily of war of systematic genocide as we saw in the 20th century, not yet at least, although the reckless shelling of residences, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees forced to flee their homeland, assuredly constitute a form of ethnic cleansing. Regardless of the niceties of international human rights law, it is indeed a war of annihilation, a war openly waged with the intention of destroying the independent political and cultural existence of Ukraine — a shocking spectacle in the 21st century. The great poet Taras Shevchenko, in his 1844 poem “A Dream,” expressed his fear that, in the face of unrelenting Russian repression:
Exists, perhaps, no more.
I’d fly to see if she’s still there,
But God won’t let me go.
It may be Moscow’s razed the land,
And emptied to the sea
Our Dnieper, and our lofty mounds
Dug up — so none may see
The relics of our former fame.
Putin’s regime is certainly capable of culturecide. We have seen it in Crimea, where Tatars have been subjected to a campaign of repression that rivals that of the Soviet era (a subject I will be returning to in a forthcoming piece). We have seen how religious liberty and minority rights have been imperiled in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as demonstrated by Bitter Winter’s Massimo Introvigne. These are but foretastes of what Ukrainians will experience if they are unable to repel the Russian invasion, and if the international community is not able to forestall Putin and Lukashenko’s mad gambit.
The iconoclastic, vandalistic spirit of Rudolf Herzog and Franz Nölken is evidently alive and well in present-day Russia. But the countervailing spirit of Etienne Moreau-Nélaton is just as evident in the Ukrainians’ resistance, and their ever-growing pride in a beleaguered but defiant nation. I hope that those of good faith in the rest of the world do not merely adopt the pose of George Wharton Edwards, contenting themselves with a lament for the vanished glories of the past and a denunciation of the infamous crime taking place before our eyes. There is still time to safeguard this heritage, and there will be time to rebuild the mangled physical and cultural edifice of Ukrainian life, notwithstanding the ongoing mutilation not just of daily life but of memory and the imagination. And if there are those who think this is all just “sanctimonious blather in the press and among sensitive people,” at least we know where they stand — not with the victims, not with the heroes, not with those who will triumph in the end, even if it takes months, or years, or even centuries, but with the moral monsters, the perpetrators of outrages reminiscent of the darkest days of Europe’s history.