General · history

All is Vanity…

One of the advantages of being married to a keen amateur historian is that you regularly get whisked off to all kinds of strange and improbable places. A ruined Longobard village on an Italian hillside; the Swiss village where Nietzsche went to wind down; an odd and decidedly creepy little town best known for its mediaeval scriptorium … with each such visit, I’ve felt that another little piece of the jigsaw of human history has slotted into place.

Image credit: George Hodan via publicdomainpictures.net

The jigsaw analogy has been on my mind quite a lot of late. The older I get, the more I suspect that all areas of knowledge are intricately connected, and that to pursue just one subject at the expense of all others is to lose sight of the bigger picture. Then again, specialisation is probably inevitable: certain things interest certain people more than others, and the average person only has so much time available for study. My own historian being most interested in the subject of World War II, we headed off to Nuremberg at the tail end of the summer.

The centre of Nuremberg is, in many ways, exactly what you would expect of a German town. It’s clean, neat and orderly, with a public transport system that puts other such public transport systems to shame. The historic centre was largely destroyed during the War, but it has been rebuilt in a sympathetic manner, in keeping with the original layout and architecture. The past, it seems, is a constant companion there, which is hardly surprising in view of its long and distinguished history. The town was once the “unofficial capital” of the Holy Roman Empire, and the imperial court frequently met at Nuremberg Castle.

Nuremberg, as seen from the Castle.

Walking through the castle grounds, I felt that I was looking at the light side of history, almost: the side that speaks of human achievement, progress, and civilisation. It is significant, perhaps, that the Holy Roman Empire self-consciously modelled itself on the long-lost western Roman Empire. Western Civilisation is still haunted by, and convulsed by the aftershocks of, the fall of the Roman Empire – more haunted and convulsed than ever, perhaps, at a time when the nature and future of that civilisation is the subject of much debate.

Of course, and as any bargain basement sage will tell you, there can be no light side without a corresponding dark side. Nuremberg’s history made it attractive to another, somewhat less benign, political power. The Nazis chose it as the setting for their immense rally grounds, which lie on the outskirts of the town. There is a museum there, but the grounds have otherwise been left largely untouched, as if no one really knows what to do with them – which may, indeed, be the case. There is no entrance fee, no ticket barrier. The visitor can simply walk up to the various monuments and, indeed, climb all over them, though a stern notice reminds you that you do so at your own risk.

It was a warm, sunny day when I visited. Apart from a group of laughing, rollerblading kids, the place was largely deserted. There were hardly any visitors, and locals seemed to steer clear of the place. The parade grounds that were once projected as the pride of Nazi Germany were lonely, shunned, and unkempt. Weeds pushed their way through the cracked masonry, a reminder of the ease with which nature reclaims the work of human hands. A cool breeze sprang up, and I shivered – and not just because of the breeze. Standing in that place, something occurred to me – something entirely obvious, but which suddenly resonated on a deeper level than it had before.

The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Reich that was supposed to last for a thousand years … all are gone now, their works reduced to tourist attractions or urban wasteland. Nothing lasts forever; most things don’t even last for a very long time, relatively speaking. All is vanity.

Perhaps that’s just as well; it reminds us of our relative insignificance. And yet even those of us who accept this fact behave as if we don’t really believe it. We try to make our mark upon the world, whether it be through creative pursuits or political action or the accumulation of wealth and status. On an intellectual level we may suspect that these things are ultimately worthless, but we cannot quite grasp it on an emotional level. Perhaps we just need something to provide us with a reason to keep going. False beliefs, it seems, have their uses…

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