The Long Way into Barbarism

The moonlight sonata is a piano piece by Ludwig van Beethoven that he wrote in 1801. Moonlight sonata is also the code name that planners of the German Luftwaffe gave their raid on the British city of Coventry in the night from November 14 to 15 in 1940. It makes one wonder what people think when they call their plans to destroy a city like Beethoven called his romantic expression of sadness and unrequited love. Names that used to signify highlights of culture now mark humanity’s descent into cruelty and barbarism.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Luftwaffe Dornier Do 17

It was a clear night when hundreds of German bombers took to the sky to rain death and destruction on Coventry. First came bombers with high explosives to expose the wood of the roof structures. The next wave that dropped incendiaries to set those structures aflame. Aircrews smelled the fire and felt the heat as they flew 6000 feet above the burning inferno. The casualties mounted in the hundreds, and the elated German leadership spoke about “coventrisieren”, to coventrize enemy cities. 

Coventry Cathedral 1940

In the night Coventry died, strategic bombing was still in its infancy. The British improved the procedure when they retaliated and turned German cities into smoldering ruins. They called the process hamburgisation after an air raid on Hamburg in 1943 had created a firestorm, a vortex of intense heat and destruction. The casualties in this raid mounted in the 10s of thousands. 

Hamburg 1943

That seems to be the logic of violence. It grows exponentially like cancer. First, there are some victims, but retaliation and re-retaliation let the casualties multiply until the destruction of human life reaches a level that is too abstract for the human heart to comprehend. The cold logic of war turns an individual’s suffering into a statistical data point. It abstracts anguish and prevents compassion and mercy.

Smoke obscured the sun when Provost Richard Howard stood in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and looked at two roof beams that had fallen into the shape of a cross. Then he took a piece of chalk and wrote onto a wall, “Father forgive”. Bystanders suggested he meant to write father forgive THEM! But no, Howard wanted everybody to recognize their part in the behaviors and ideologies that create violence and war. 

No military leader in the earth’s history has ever won a lasting victory. WW2 did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in the historical context of WW I, the war supposed to end all wars. It didn’t. Every victory is but the start of the next round. Humanity’s problems have no military solution. History cannot be won, not domestically, not abroad. Those who are the enemy now will still be there when the guns fall silent.

On Christmas 1940, Howard spoke on the radio of reconciliation with the enemy after the war. At the time, the worst atrocities of WW2 hadn’t happened yet. 10s of millions would still die on the battlefields and in concentration camps until NAZI barbarism was defeated. But when the war ended, 80 million Germans were still around. 

Richard Howard (1960s)
Coventry Cross of Nails

Howard reached out to them. The church of St. Nikolai in Kiel had also been destroyed in an air raid. To them Howard presented a cross fashioned out of three medieval nails of Coventry cathedral. In 1947, Kiel became Coventry’s twin city. Peace is made between enemies, between parties that actively thought to destroy each other. That makes peacemaking inherently difficult and emotionally challenging. The Cross of Nails of Coventry Cathedral became a symbol for hope, reconciliation and peace. Hundreds of similar crosses were presented to churches, charities and organizations that devote themselves to peace and reconciliation. In 1976, recipients of the Cross came together to form the ecumenical society of the Cross of Nails.

The way into barbarism is long, but the journey starts when the dignity of any human is called into question. No matter what, all human beings have the right to be treated with respect. There are no exceptions for any reason. Don’t do to others what is hateful to you, says the bible and virtually any religion on the planet. It the fundamental precondition that alone makes peace possible. 


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Olaf Baumann

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