I want to briefly look at the material and spiritual condition of Europe in 1946, my birth year. The destruction of homes and buildings was wide-spread, particularly in Germany and—to a lesser extent—in England. I do remember my parents remarking on the ruined buildings we saw in London on our way to Scotland in 1953. (My father was an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force.) Luftwaffe bombers, supplemented by V-1 and V-2 rockets, had taken their toll. Germany, of course, had been devastated by Allied bombing. During our 1954 European vacation, my parents must have seen bombed-out portions of Munich, but they remembered only the enchanting beauty of the Bavarian Alps around Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Garmisch, a ski resort, was largely untouched by Allied attacks, but the major cities of Germany were “flattened” by bombs, as recorded in Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Allied attack on Dresden. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time but writes from the perspective of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim.
He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed.
There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-
explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. …Dresden was one big flame.
The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. (The) stones
(of the buildings) had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until
they locked at last in low and graceful curves. “It was like the moon,” said Billy
Other German cities were also in ruins. Free-standing walls jutted up from the rubble, and people took refuge in roofless buildings that had three or four walls intact. Berlin had lost up to 50 per cent of its habitable space, and an astounding 70 per cent of residential Cologne was no longer livable.
While statistical studies can always be disputed, the death toll in Europe was enormous, perhaps thirty-five to forty million people. Great Britain lost about 300,000 people while over a half-million French citizens were killed. Some six million Germans died, equaling or surpassing the number of Jews who perished in Hitler’s Holocaust. Six million was also the probable number of Polish deaths; and in the Soviet Union an incredible twenty-seven million died violently.
Numbers are, of course, abstract. Keith Lowe in Savage Continent suggests another way to comprehend the death toll of World War II:
Perhaps the only way to come close to understanding what happened is
to stop trying to imagine Europe as a place populated by the dead, and
to think of it instead as a place characterized by absence. Almost everyone
alive when the war ended had lost friends or relatives to it. Whole villages,
whole towns and even whole cities had been effectively erased, and with
them their populations. Large areas of Europe that had once been home
to thriving, bustling communities were now almost entirely empty of people.
It was not the presence of death that defined the atmosphere of postwar
Europe, but rather the absence of those who had once occupied Europe’s
sitting rooms, its shops, its streets, its markets.
Absence was most acutely experienced by those Jews who had managed to survive Hitler’s “final solution.” After all, two out of every three European Jews had been killed. As an experiment, I added the common Jewish name “David” to the surname “Hirsch” and searched for “David Hirsch” in an online data bank of Jews persecuted by the Nazis.
I found eleven instances of “David Hirsch.” All eleven were, of course, Jew (presumably) murdered by the Nazis. Based on my interpretation of the data, three had been sent to Auschwitz, two had died at Theresienstadt, two had been executed in the killing fields near Minsk, Belarus; and one was shot in the Rumbula forest of Latvia with some 26,000 other Jews. A David Hirsch also died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin; and another Hirsch was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto where he apparently died shortly after German troops crushed a Jewish revolt in the ghetto. A final individual died earlier in 1939 when the Nazis herded thousands of Polish-German Jews across the border with Poland in a mass deportation. The Polish government sent them back to Germany!
So, where was God in 1946? Apparently, he wasn’t in Europe! Traditionally, of course, God is a loving God who is omni-present, omniscient, and all-powerful. Mere human beings can only speculate about God; but, based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is Love. In that same tradition, he is thought of as all-powerful. But then the question arises, “How could a loving, all-powerful God have permitted the events that led up to the human and material destruction of 1946? Aren’t those two divine attributes contradictory?
“Yes, of course,” is my answer. We must throw out “all-powerful” if we want to preserve God’s loving nature. And the excision of omnipotence makes sense. Again, remembering that we can only speculate, we can think of God as the Ground of Being, “Being Itself.” Being Itself must struggle against non-being, Satan or the Devil in mythological terms. Being Itself (we hope) will eventually triumph but only with the passing of time. While that time passes, human beings have the responsibility to cooperate with God, to work for the coming of The Kingdom of God. Exactly how this will happen and what the result will look like, we cannot know; but faith in God implies faith in the establishment of the Kingdom. May we have the courage to wait and work for this natural and supernatural culmination!
~ Richard Russell
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