The Message of the Ruins:
Reading Devastation

by Robert J. Meindl

part 1

ABSTRACT: The most important study of John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, the 14th-century poet’s analysis of English society that deals with the national situation in the run-up to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and its aftermath, was written by Maria Wickert, a German scholar living in Cologne amidst the post-World War II devastation that afflicted almost all of Germany.

Gower’s poem, an extended commentary and lamentation upon the failures of the various components of English society to live up to the Christian values upon which the nation was supposedly founded, finds its most perceptive critic in the person of a German intellectual embedded in a society similarly immersed in the analysis of its own failures.

— Robert J. Meindl, California State University, Sacramento

Wenn man es recht besieht, so ist überall Schiffbruch — Petronius (cited by Karl Krolow as a headnote to Verlassene Küste (1948)

Having recently completed a revision of my translation of Maria Wickert’s Studien zu John Gower, her classic analysis of Gower’s Vox Clamantis, I have come to appreciate how by virtue of her own position in history she brought to her reading an insider’s perspective on the 14th-century Englishman’s work. Like Gower in his famous account in Book I of the Vox Clamantis, Wickert had survived a time in which men had behaved like beasts, a nation that had long considered itself the heir of ancient Rome had been, like Troy, devastated, and, to use a metaphor often employed also by post-war German poets, a land and its institutions had been battered by a storm of epic proportions.

Severe historical trauma led in the immediate post-war period to an investigation of the national psyche that insisted upon the acceptance of responsibility both collectively and individually. It is small wonder that Wickert was attracted to Gower’s great Latin poem and its argument that the English calamity of the summer of 1381 could be traced to a society-wide failure of foundational values. She was at work in a nation engrossed in a large-scale discussion of the penitential consequences of gross national error (a remarkable phenomenon that persists to the present day), reading Gower’s interpretation of English events and their causes against the physical backdrop of the German disaster.

I went to Cologne in the summer of 1970 to improve my German language skills at the Goethe Institute in Liblar, a small town some miles outside Cologne, and to consult with Lothar Wickert, husband of the late Maria Wickert, who had died in 1959. Author of many important works on antiquity, Professor Wickert was at the time engrossed in the book which was to have crowned his career, a four-volume biography of Theodor Mommson, the author of classical studies as we know them. Nevertheless, he had agreed to meet with me over the course of the summer to discuss the feasibility of my translating his wife’s study of John Gower’s poetry.

Cologne in the summer of 1970 had in large measure been reconstructed after the devastations wrought by fleets of British and American heavy bombers throughout the course of World War II. After all, the war had been over for twenty-five years. However, evidence of destruction was everywhere. Some buildings still showed internal walls as exteriors and, when they had been used for human habitation, the effect was curious and poignant, showing where floors and doors had once been and often, by painting, wallpapering, or plumbing remnants, the purposes for which long-vanished rooms had been used. Construction crews regularly turned up (and occasionally still do) unexploded ordnance.

The area around the cathedral was dominated by piles of stones that had been blasted from the exterior by the hundreds of tons of bombs that had rained upon this part of the city, not because the cathedral was being targeted but because it stands just a few hundred meters from the main railroad station, a major transportation facility that had been the goal of the Allied bombers. Most of the stones would be patiently restored to their original sites on the cathedral’s edifice over the course of many years.

When I first saw Cologne, the reconstruction had been going on since war’s end and was not to be completed for several decades. Most fortuitously, in destroying the buildings that had over the centuries crept closer and closer to the Dom, the bombs had laid bare the outlines of Roman structures and, in one famous instance, revealed mosaic tile work that had been the glory of an ancient building.

Archeologists and workers were everywhere engaged in the process of preserving the remnants of the past that had been the unintended bonus of war, while at the same time others were doing everything they could to restore a city that, like Dresden, had once been and would again be one of Europe’s finest.

The railroad station had likewise been long rebuilt by 1970, but trains in and out of Cologne travelled along embankments and through tunnels that showed clear evidence of the explosive storms that had raged. Everywhere concrete was chipped and blasted by shrapnel and bullets, and the riverbank on both sides of the station was devoid of structures, although the Hohenzollern bridge was back in place (restricted now to train and pedestrian travel), accompanied by a modern automobile span across the Rhine.

It was not difficult to imagine one’s train about to be taken under fire by low-flying British Typhoons and American Thunderbolts. Taking advantage of another opportunity presented by war’s destruction, the city had reclaimed its riverfront and, where once houses and shops had pressed right up to water’s edge, a fine pedestrian walkway now extended along the bank, furnished with abundant benches and shelters. Professor Wickert and I walked many times upon its comfortable surface.

As busy as he was, the stately old man nevertheless found time for me, as did his current wife, the classical scholar Gisela Wickert-Micknat, and his daughter, Almut Opitz, a judge presiding over a court that dealt with Jewish reparations.

During the course of several excursions around the city, Frau Opitz explained to me the stunning complexities of even the simplest cases that came before the court system. Properties seized from Jews by the Nazis had been handed over to Party favorites and their true owners sent off, for the most part to die in the camps, although some would survive and return to press their claims for restoration. Those were the easy cases.

Sometimes children survived and were adopted and raised around the world, only years later realizing that they had claims. In the worst cases, Germans who had come by their homes, businesses, furniture and other appurtenances as a byproduct of Nazi persecution were still in possession of them or had bequeathed them to their heirs. Documentation was largely non-existent and witnesses in most cases long dead. Cases dragged on for many years, not because the system was Dickensian but because there simply seemed to be no solutions, however assiduously and arduously the new German courts labored to correct the past.

Several times I also accompanied Frau Dr. Wickert-Micknat for learned commentary on the plight of slaves and women in antiquity while visiting such venerable sites as St. Cecelia’s, the Kunsthalle, the Zeughaus, Great St. Martin’s and, of course, the cathedral, in which it was easy to imagine the presence of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, the latter buried but a short distance away in the crypt beneath the Romanesque church of St. Andreas.

But meeting Professor Wickert for lunch at the Wal, his favorite restaurant in the tiny pocket of the old city that had been saved and restored, was a particular treat, for upon completion of the meal he would always say, “Komm, wir gucken uns mal den Fluss an” (“Let’s go look at the river”). That meant walking and talking with one of the most fascinating people I ever met, all the while observing the heavy boat traffic upon the Rhine and its swift and powerful waters.

Often he talked about Mommsen, recounted anecdote after anecdote of the great scholar, whose life he attempted to immerse himself in to the extent that every day he would orient himself to what Mommsen had done on that day of his life that corresponded chronologically to Wickert’s life in the present at a century’s remove in time. My favorite was the streetcar story.

Mommsen was throughout his career a prodigious worker, and used every available moment to carry his great task forward. To that end he employed the time spent on his daily streetcar ride to and from the university to edit manuscripts. One day, looking up from the text in which he was engrossed, he discovered a little girl sitting across from him and staring at him intently. “Why, what an attractive young lady you are,” he said. “What is your name?”

“Anna, father,” she supposedly replied.

Other days Wickert talked about his return to Cologne, after the war, from captivity in a British prisoner-of-war camp on the Adriatic in northern Italy, where as a Feldwebel (sergeant) he had been serving as a radio operator at war’s end and where he had been taken captive. He had been inducted into the Wehrmacht at the outset of the war but released from service after the early successes of the German military and so able to return to his work at the University of Cologne. He was then recalled to service when the situation for Germany began to disintegrate.

When the German Army in Italy capitulated at war’s end he was part of an enormous number of prisoners the British Army suddenly found itself responsible for. The camp he was assigned to had been well-organized by the British, and treatment of the prisoners was decent, but food was scarce because of the inevitable difficulties involved in feeding large numbers of people with supply facilities suddenly tasked beyond their capabilities. Hunger was a constant presence.

To take their minds off the craving for food and occupy themselves to useful ends, the prisoners organized groups that worked to improve the camp’s structures, planted and tended gardens, and conducted schools. By virtue of his civilian occupation, Wickert became part of an enterprise to conduct a university within the camp and taught ancient history to anyone who cared to attend his classes.

Others with particular expertise taught their specialties, and the project flourished despite the obvious difficulties occasioned by lack of facilities and materials. Throughout the summer and fall of 1945, Wickert lectured to students who were surely getting the best free education offered anywhere in the world until, along with the majority of the captive soldiers, he was denazified (he had joined the NSDAP in 1941, perhaps because he had been born in Posen and felt, like many Germans, the sting of territorial loss) and certified for return to civilian life.

The Cologne he came back to was unrecognizable as the same city he had left. “Als ich züruck in die Stadt kam, trat ich in die Hölle,” he told me once — “When I returned to the city, I walked into hell.” He had left a city damaged but still intact, before the great 1,000-bomber raid on the night of 30-31 May 1942 had reduced the city to a field of ruins and subsequent raids had churned the rubble over and over.

Of 800,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the war, less than 100,000 remained. Those who hadn’t been killed had, like his wife, found refuge elsewhere and returned to make a place for themselves in the ruins after peace came in the spring of 1945. This was the city in which, apart from a brief visit to London for work at the British Museum, Maria Wickert would conduct most of the research that led to the publication of her highly-regarded study of Gower’s Latin masterwork.

One day Professor Wickert remarked that his wife had been very much aware of the similarities between the situations of London in the summer of 1381 and Cologne during the war, two great cities along two great rivers, each famous for a signature structure, a tower and a twin-spired cathedral, that attempted to provide refuge physical or spiritual against an overwhelming national disaster. The distraught figure of the poet, experiencing the Peasants’ Revolt quasi in propria persona and drawing from it conclusions of international dimension, had reached her at a very personal level.

I have remembered that conversation often over the years and thought about what her reactions must have been as she worked her way through Gower’s analysis of sin and redemption. Her remarks about Gower’s situation often suggest that she saw clearly the applicability to her world, too, of the Englishman’s conclusions about a London devastated as a consequence of a tyrant’s misrule.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Robert J. Meindl

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