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Perspectives on Civilization

 Changing Perspectives on Civilization                        Gerry OShea

People often ask how Germany, home of so many great artists and writers, could also have produced the Nazis with their record of horrendous cruelty and inhumanity. How could a culture that generated the three B’s, Brahms, Bach and Beethoven also claim Goebbels, Himmler and Adolf Hitler?

At the Nuremberg trials, the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, told the judges that “the real complaining party at your bar is civilization.” The trial heard that the Nazi regime had completely discarded widely-accepted standards of decency and civility.

Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich Minister for Propaganda, proclaimed that the Nazis were defending Europe against the pagan Bolshevik hordes coming from the east. He also condemned “British Barbarism” for bombing historic German cities and towns, describing these actions as “English assassination of European culture.”

Hans Frank, the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, declared that his aim was “to elevate the Polish people to the honor of European civilization.” He is remembered for looting Polish art collections, banning performances of Chopin and sending millions of Jews to death camps.

On the political front, the terrible photographs of emaciated prisoners and the survivors’ piteous stories from the death camps cried out for revenge. However, George Marshall, the brilliant American Secretary of State, while approving the trials of the leading culprits, decided that the mass punitive approach adopted at the Paris Peace Conference after the Great War was a dismal failure and should not be repeated. The arguments for punishing the Germans in 1918 may have been convincing but from a pragmatist’s perspective this strategy led directly to the growth of extreme nationalism, opening the door to fascism.

Marshall feared that a humiliated Germany would again re-emerge and assert itself as a communist power aligned with Russia, or they might listen again to another deranged voice like Hitler’s. Instead, he successfully initiated a magnanimous plan, still bearing his name and honored by many historians as the outstanding diplomatic and humanitarian achievement of the 20th century.

American dollars flowed into Germany and other European countries to re-build their infrastructure and jumpstart their economies. All recipient countries had to accept the principles and practices of a liberal democracy where the rule of law prevails and the people freely choose their leaders.

The Americans did not see this as just an economic project. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, left no doubt about the idealistic dimension of the Marshall Plan: “Our task is to save Europe for Western civilization.”

The re-civilizing of Germany was made somewhat more plausible when it was established that humane standards were already part of German law, so the defendants in Nuremberg could not assert ignorance of existing legal strictures on the central issue of the treatment of prisoners. Affirmation of individual responsibility was an important civilized legacy of these trials.

The British played their part in the re-education plans to help to release an appreciation of admirable culture from the Germanic past. In this program from London, Beethoven and Goethe were elevated while Bismarck and the Kaiser were demoted.

It is worth noting and highly ironic that the recent Brexit debate in Britain, promoted mainly by strong nationalists in the Tory Party, was based on the conservatives’ dismay at German leadership of the European Union (EU).  They have the biggest economy in the EU and, consequently, the strongest voice at all the meetings in Brussels. This left the British Tories highly resentful of playing second fiddle to a country they felt needed to be re-introduced to the benefits of civilization a mere sixty years earlier.

Christianity in all its forms is a central part of the European heritage. The cathedrals, universities and monasteries all over Europe are testaments to this vibrant part of the culture. Catholic-Protestant reconciliation in the 1950’s underpinned the Christian Democratic idea. De Gasperi, Christian Democrat and Italian prime minister in nine successive governments after 1945, commented succinctly “Christianity lies at the origin of this European civilization.”

 Spain and Portugal  under Franco and Salazar kept the fascist flag flying as Catholic dictatorships. They sided with the West during the Cold War, and they finally yielded to the democratic surge after the deaths of the two Iberian autocrats in the middle of the 1970’s.

The round-up of Jews and gypsies and their extermination in death camps, horrific acts unmatched in modern warfare, raised the question about the Christians, who were almost entirely marked absent during the holocaust. Where were the church voices crying out against mass murder? Was this the vaunted Christian culture and European civilization?

Some individual priests and ministers performed heroic work in resisting the tyranny all around them. However, Christians were sucked into the maelstrom of anti-Semitism. Even Pope Pius X11 shirked his duty to call out the horrible immorality engulfing Europe.

Jews, gradually recovering from the trauma of the Nazi massacre, began asking questions about their core belief that they are a chosen people going back to Abraham. Where was the covenant with the personal God who led them out of the desert and had promised that he would always act as their guide as long as they honored his commandments? The enormity of the Shoah eliminated easy answers.

Irish peasants who watched hundreds of thousands die of starvation in the 1840’s asked the same question about God. Where was he when hunger stalked the countryside? One stream of Catholic culture suggested that God had abandoned them because of their sins.

Central to the forced European colonization of poor countries in Asia and Africa was a common story that these advanced western countries came bringing the gift of a superior civilization. The natives, often referred to as savages, were always viewed as inferior to their new white bosses.

This civilization project included missionaries who gave their stamp of approval to the invasions by the home countries. They preached a new religion about salvation while dismissing what they called the native superstitions built around local pagan gods.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded in 1945 and became increasingly important in trumpeting cultural achievements outside of Europe. It invented the World Heritage Sites, demanding, for instance, the preservation of ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts threatened by the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960’s. As these important sites proliferated around the world, the identification of civilization with Christianity was greatly diminished.

The Soviet Union limited good art to expressions of conformity to their narrow understanding of a socialist state. However, it was George Orwell, a proud socialist from a different school of thought, whose two most-famous novels, “1984,” and “Animal Farm,” were, first and foremost, directed against his fellow-leftists who failed to understand the monstrous Stalinist culture, bereft of all tolerance of difference.

In a highly-acclaimed 1969 television series, Civilization, Kenneth Clarke asked “What is civilization?” He responded to his own question by saying “I don’t know but I think I will recognize it when I see it.” Positive cultural emanations in every society are a good start in grappling with questions about high culture, but Clarke’s point about the difficulty of agreeing a finer definition than that still remains valid.

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking

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