We fought to protect civilisation in WWII, and during it we saw the ultimate extremes of which human beings are capable: monstrous in fact to profoundly generous, brave and determined in the most testing of circumstances. It was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz recently, one survivor recalled that in this darkest of places the smallest acts of human kindness were like stars falling, and that he chooses to remember these moments, this power of the human spirit to find a golden shaft of light amazes me. A few of the thousands of shoes displayed at Auschwitz in memory of all those who never walked out.
The atrocities of war are only ever a generation away, this complacency and expectation for our way of life is a gift of peace. With peace also comes the freedom and time to commit energy and effort to creativity, conversely the destruction of life and civilisation takes but a moment.
The medieval cathedral in Cologne still still standing after World War II … just. The miracle of Bath and Oxford, St Pauls in London and Kings College Cambridge must be weighed against the myriad losses from Gloucester and Coventry to fairytale towns throughout Europe flattened irreversibly.
But it’s the individual story that brings the mass scale of the destruction home, World of Interiors visited Schloss Loosdorf in 2010, describing it as: one of the few extant architectural sites in Austria where WWII can still be felt – the air raid towers of Vienna and the concentration camp of Mauthausen are others. My heart beats faster when I look through this article, the images are scorched on my brain.
A neo classical palace of extraordinary beauty, home to conoisseurs and collectors for centuries, it was vacated briefly in the final brutal sweep of WWII as the Soviet forces closed in, the owners interring their collection of Meissen and Berlin, Wedgewood and Majolica, Chinese and Japanese porcelain in a concealed cellar space. The soldiers’ fury at the aristo-decadence contained within the innocent building knew no bounds: the furniture was hacked to pieces, the rare books flung from the windows and burned, the priceless porcelain …well that was unearthed used for target practise and smashed into irretrievable smithereens.
But apart from this their destruction was so absolute that the owners swept the scattered shards into piles of epic proportion and displayed them alongside the soldiers’ gallows, as a solemn and permanent reminder of our capacity for destruction once unleashed. There was nothing left to salvage or repair.
As I make arrangements for a Masters in the Decorative Arts in a comfortable home free to write what I wish, and plan leisurely travels through Europe this summer, I am grateful: I am not held fast to the yoke of extremism or the extreme circumstance of war. My world is civilised. What is our civilisation though? Well if the grand master Kenneth Clark can’t define it, I won’t try, but I appreciate his exploration of its values and the ‘European’ culture we are part of, it seems apt that his introduction to this epic 1969 series was filmed in Paris, the scene of the extremist attacks on the freedom of speech, western values and civilisation as we know it.
Kenneth Clake’s magisterial introduction to Civilisation.
Images from WOI June 2010 photographed by Fritz von der Schulenburg, article written by Michael Huey.