Here is the 22nd poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
On the night train from Dresden
we are the only people in the first class coach
a surreal corridor of empty chairs
ghostly glossy magazines
swing from empty overhead racks
like the last flags of placation or surrender
in languages I cannot read.
Our train marches forward
forthright to Prague and progress
while I clutch my postcards
of a great city’s classical ruins
the Frauenkirche, Semper’s Hoftheater,
tinted images of a heritage destroyed
my only connection with the murdered past
prized and razed by another generation.
around us sleeps in silence
the fractured city
where fifty years ago
a hundred thousand died
in one night of fire.
On the night train
in this empty carriage
we have no luggage
we have no memories
we have no doubts.
Whilst staying In Prague, we took the train across the border to visit Dresden for the day, my first visit to Germany. It rained steadily for the entire day, which together with the blackened condition of many of the buildings, added to the general shock. This was 1995, remember. For economic, and one suspects political reasons, the GDR had left many of Dresden’s ruined buildings pretty much as the Allied bombing had left them… incredibly, that’s 50 years. The place made no sense. Leaving the station which should have been at the heart of the town, we found we had to cross an immense empty space of grass before we reached any inhabited buildings and streets. Two truisms came to mind, firstly that war is terrible, and secondly that history is written by the victors. There has been much debate since 1945 as to whether the bombing of Dresden, a target of negligible military significance by the RAF and USAF, was necessary. A German study recently basically concluded that the Nazi propaganda machine added an extra zero on the end of the 20,000 dead they had counted. I took my 100,000 figure from no less an authority than Kurt Vonnegut, who was there. All the murder of men, women and children in World War Two, on every side, shames all of us as human beings. At the end of the day, none of it was necessary, but the premeditated extermination of Jews, even amid the extraordinary panoply of human evil, trumps anything. Or does it? To annihilate Hiroshima and Nagasaki in seconds, because the wording of the Japanese surrender did not rescind the immortality of the emperor, or to terrorise the watching soviets… these are war crimes surely. How do we quantify human evil on those sorts of scales? The Allied atrocities relied solely on military personnel for their completion. Hitler’s aggression came first and recruited an entire society of ordinary Germans into systematic genocide. That is staggering, but we need only look at Serbia to undermine any smug conviction that such things can never happen again.
Learning from history and reconciliation are the important lessons here. When we were in Dresden the Frauenkirche, surely one of the most beautiful churches ever built, was just an enormous pile of rubble that had lain there since 1945. In 2005, the building was finally rebuilt at enormous cost. The new gilded orb and cross on top of the dome were made by London silversmiths, one of whose fathers had flown one of the planes that dropped the fatal bombs, symbolising the reconciliation between the two cities.
My brother Robin recently suggested that Scotland should do something similar: rebuild the ruins of St.Andrew’s cathedral in the town of St.Andrews as a national symbol of rejuvenation. As labour-creating schemes go, it would be a lot less harmful than building nuclear fission reactors, and only slightly less useful than a manned mission to Mars. My own personal take on such a project is that a rebuilt St.Andrews cathedral could be the world’s first truly multi-faith church. I’m not religious, but unlike Mr.Dawkins I have the respect and wit to perceive that we will never unite humanity by telling everyone to be atheists. Rather, we must seek out the common spiritual ground in all religions and celebrate and promote those shared values as a manifesto for the compassionate moral beings that we must all become in centuries to come, if we are to have any future at all.