On Groceries and Fire Bombing

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Flag of Germany  ,
Sunday, February 26, 2006

"The Big Nurse is able to set the wall clock at whatever speed she wants by just turning one of those dials in the steel door; she takes a notion to hurry things up, she turns the speed up, and those hands whip around that disk like spokes in a wheel. The scene in the picture-screen windows goes through rapid changes of light to show morning, noon, and night -- throb off and on furiously with day and dark, and everybody is driven like mad to keep up with that passing of fake time..." -- Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Meanwhile, Mr. Springsteen (*) and I are being driven mad trying to find an open grocery store to get some good breakfast and lunch food (while spending 10-15 euro on dinner is not incredibly traumatic, spending the same on breakfast and lunch seems a bit extravagant). One is tempted to share the schizoid paranoia of Kesey's narrator... perhaps the Germans know our plans and have hired a huge group of people to move the buildings, piece by piece, before we arrive. Or maybe they're turning out the lights just as we're about to round the corner, all current customers hiding behind the shelves. Just another closed store, boys! Move on through! Danke shen!

This is new to me. And it reminds me that on every trip I take, there's a new assumption that gets broken. Here in Dresden, you are hard pressed to find any necessity shopping (or any sort of shopping that's not totally tourist-based) on a Sunday. Most places are closed. And even if they're open, they're hard to spot. The telltale look of a Safeway or an Extra Foods or a Sainsbury's (for the Brits among us)? Oh no. Nothing so simple. "Look for anything that says 'Markt'," says Mr. Springsteen. And more likely than not, it's going to be at the bottom of some apartment building with nothing but a small sign to announce its presence.

We never found the groceries, but I did manage to get a more comprehensive look at Dresden. Bombed out cathedrals, forested areas in the middle of the city (apparently, it's one of the greenest cities in Europe), castles, and colorful sometimes abandoned mansions were the scenery for our grocery hunt. I think the absence of cheap food for a day was a worthwhile trade for taking a scenic route to nowhere in particular.

That night, Mr. Springsteen, who, five or six years ago had actually lived and breathed the Dresden air for a year, took me through the old town area, pointing out the sites. It was a bit cold, but great to have an actual guided tour of "those big old buildings". At one point, we arrive at a church with some black bricks mixed among the whitish ones. "During the war," Mr. Springsteen explains, "About two thousand people hid in this church. It never got hit. They considered it a miracle. Then about two days after the bombing run, after all the people had exited the church, the pure heat generated from the bombing in the area caused the building to basically explode. Look, there's a chunk of it there." And I see a large piece of stone that has obviously been left in its exploded position as a reminder of what happened here.

There are a lot of people who say the bombing of Dresden was itself a war crime. No military installations, no real value in defeating the Nazis. Of course, the hawks will argue that there were offices, etc. here that were of strategic importance and that during the war, the lives of a thousand Germans were not worth as much as the life of one of the Allied forces. It's tempting, given the evil that the country as a whole committed to go along with that. Then again, the guys flying planes into buildings a few years back also felt they were fighting a greater evil. I think most of the more neutral players in the world would disagree with the validity of both attacks.

"One must be careful when fighting monsters, lest one becomes a monster oneself." - Nietzsche

War tends to make us all into monsters. It's a difficult task to not go over that line. Have we in North America become the monster? I don't know. Perhaps it's a monstrosity of a different kind. More subtle than that of Germany during the 30s and 40s. We don't conquer with guns any more. We conquer with the weight of our money and our technology. We can sweep whole cultures away with debt relief and a few McDonald's. But gosh, even I'm incredibly comforted as a North American, scared and lost in a foreign country, to suddenly turn and see a familiar conquering piece of corporate America. Finally, something like home!

The church was rebuilt. That's why you see the white stones. They're the new ones. The iron in the stone oxidizes over the years, turning the old ones to black. Give the new ones a few hundred years and eventually even the stains of war will be washed from this city.

(*) Bruce Springsteen is also known by some as "The Boss".
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