– Truman Capps
A few weeks ago, I visited London’s Imperial War Museum, which is basically one giant monument to the fact that if you live in the world, England has tried to kill your ancestors (or maybe even you—holla back, Ireland!).
In the basement of the museum was the Blitz exhibit, where groups of tourists were herded in small groups into a little faux World War II era bomb shelter which would vibrate slightly while recordings of explosions played, to simulate the experiences of Londoners taking shelter from Nazi bombs. Afterwards, a little door opened and we were ushered out into a replica of a bombed out London street, which would have been a very powerful moment had the whole thing not looked like it had been built out of cardboard boxes by someone who had never been to England.*
*So as rides go, I’d rate it below Disneyland’s Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, but above everything at Great America.
What I found most interesting about the experience, though, was that a group of German tourists about my age was in the exhibit with us. As I watched them sitting in the fake shelter, listening to the fake bombs dropped by fake Germans, I thought, Yeah. How do you like them apples, bitches?
And when we stepped out onto the fake-destroyed street, in spite of its crappiness I wanted to turn to the Germans and yell, “Look what you did! Look what you did! Go back to your weinerschnitzel and your disturbing pornography; your kind aren’t wanted here! I hope the in-flight movie is Inglourious Basterds!”
So even though the Blitz exhibit wasn’t great, it was sufficient to inspire me with blind, ignorant hatred of other nationalities, which is, I suppose, as good of an English history lesson as you’re going to get.
This whole situation got turned on its head when I visited Dresden.
Dresden is a charming little city of about 500,000 along the Elbe in Germany, perhaps best known as the place that got the absolute shit bombed out of it by the Allies late in World War II. It was during this bombing that Kurt Vonnegut, at the time an American prisoner of war, took shelter in the basement of Slaughterhouse-Five, an event which inspired his book, Slaughterhouse-Five.*
*Or, as I like to call it, Not Cat’s Cradle.
Historians estimate that the bombing and resultant firestorm in Dresden, a cultural center that was of very little military significance, killed between 24,000 and 40,000 people, most of whom were civilians fleeing the war. To cap off this grand historical douche-chill, the rail yards and factories on the outskirts of town, which were the only significant elements of the Nazi war machine in the area, weren’t targeted. It was America’s first foray into wartime assholery; fruitful years in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq lay ahead.
While the basement of the Imperial War Museum is a record of the Blitz in London, virtually all of central Dresden is a living record of the city’s destruction at the hands of Americans. At the center of the city, there’s a new cathedral that’s a replica of a cathedral destroyed in the war, partially constructed out of rubble of the first cathedral.
In the museum downtown, there’s a lot of information to be had about just how many priceless works of art and architecture were lost in the bombing. On the February 13 of every year, the anniversary of the bombing, the people of the city come together to protest war.
Needless to say, Dresden was sort of an embarrassing place to visit as an American. Whenever I would sheepishly ask a waiter if he or she spoke English, I always thought I could catch a glimpse of a steely look in their eye that said, “Oh, well—an American, here to survey the damage. Bad news—if you drop incendiary bombs on your currywurst, we’re not bringing you another one.”*
*This could also just be my reaction to the German language. At one point during my stay, I tried to walk into a bar that was in the process of closing. The manager came around the bar and briskly explained to me, in German, that they were no longer open, which was a traumatic experience for me because no matter what you’re saying in German, it sounds like, “I WILL CRUSH YOU!”
The city’s destruction gave Dresden a chance to rebuild, which they did in a variety of postmodern styles that now make Dresden something of an architectural landmark. While they still remember the past, it looks as though the people of Dresden were able to move beyond it and focus on the future. Hopefully the next time I’m looking at a piece of World War II history with a German, I’ll be able to do the same thing.
Do you see what I did there? Metaphor. You’re damn right I’m a journalism major.
Truman Capps uses metaphor extensively on his blog, Hair Guy.