Wallenstein Is Dead

Rodin 5.jpg

We fight on that lie.
--Slim Charles

For the first two thirds of Wedgwood's 30 Years War, the utter misery of the peasantry is softened by the splendor of the titans of early modern Europe--Wallenstein, Adolphus, Ferdinand etc. But by the last third, these men are dead and the human price of their ambition laid bare.

An entire generation turns over during the War, so that toward the end of the book you have an entirely different, less fantastic, cast of characters. And then the misery intensifies. Germany is reeling under decades of constant war, and the result is a descent into almost total anarchy.

Here's Wedgwood, as always, wielding her demon pen:

...Tales were told of the sack of Kempten by the imperialists, of Landsberg by the Swedes, of Calw by the Bavarians, which froze the blood, The imperialist had slaughtered children in the cellars  thrown the women of the upper windows of the houses and boiled a housewife in her own cauldron, The Swedes had sprinkled gunpowder on their prisoners and set fire to their clothes, the Bavarians under Werth had shut the citizens into Calw, fired the walls, trained guns on the gates and shot at the people as they tried to escape the flames.

The stories were exaggerations bust based on the increasing and now general barbarity of the war. In sober fact, civilian prisoners were led off in halters to die of exposure by the wayside, children kidnapped and held to ransom, priests tied under the wagons to crawl on all fours like dogs until they dropped, burghers and peasants imprisoned, starved and tortured for their concealed wealth to the uttermost of human endurance with uttermost of human ingenuity.,

The more rapid and widespread movements of the troops in the last six years had increased the ravages of plague and hunger beyond all bound and uprooted the population of Central Germany from the soil, turning them into a fluctuating mass of fugitives....The desertion was temporary, and those of those who fled, many drifted back again, but in the meantime economic life came to a standstill, and some who went as wealthy burghers returned to the charred ruins of their homes with nothing but the rags they wore...

The gentry, in the efforts to maintain their comforts, renounced their established dutiers and left their homes for the towns, or fell back on the olf profession of robbery and raided the passing traveler as in days of old. In Moravia, government officals and local landowners allied themselves with wandering marauders and shared the booty.
The fugitives who fled from the south after Nordlingen died of plague, hunger and exhaustion in the refugee camp at Frankfort or the overcrowded hospitals of Saxony; seven thousand were expelled from the cantons of Zurich because there was neither food no room for them, at Hanau the gates were closed against them, at Strasbourg they lay thick in the streets through the frosts of winter, so that by day the citizens stepped over their bodies, and by night lay awake listening to the groans of the sick and starving until the magistrates forcibly drove them out, thirty thousand of them.

The Jesuits here and there fought manfully against the overwhelming distress; after the burning and desertion of Eichstatt they sought out the children who were hiding in the cellars, killing and eating rats, and carried them off to care for and educate them; at Hagenau they managed feed the poor out of their stores until the French troops raided their granary and took charge of the grain for the Army.

By the irony of fate the wine harvest of 1634, which should have been excellent, was trampled down by fugitives, and invaders after Nordlingen; that of 635 suffered a like fate, and in the winter, from Wuttemberg to Lorraine, there raged the worst famine of many years. 

At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing on the raw flesh of a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding. In Alsace the bodies of criminals were torn from the gallows and devoured; in the whole Rhineland they watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food; at Zweibrucken a woman confessed to having eater her child. Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms. 

In Fulda and Coburg and near Frankfort and the great refugee camp, men went in terror of being killed and eaten by those maddened by hunger...

On reading this, I was, as always, utterly thrilled by Wedgwood's writing. But as I was telling my Dad last night, I also took a moment to reflect on my own studies, and my own mission as a writer, and as an African-American.

First, it's really startling to read about the utter barbarism which Europe sank to during the War, and then contrast it with popular images of Africa as "the dark continent." I hope this doesn't sound cold, but immediately it occured to me that all the sins the proto-white racists put on Africa--cannibalism, slavery, wanton rape--were very much known to them. The very Germans who fled from Palantinate to a country that derided Africans as savages, were, themselves, the children of such savages.

From that perspective, racism is again revealed as not simply amoral but as phrenology, as Intelligent Design. Its mission is to evade, or conceal a painful past, and overlay with the legacy of the Greeks or the Romans. But the Moors and Muslims have as much claim to classical civilization as the Germans. Any exploration of Muslim scholarship reveals that not simply to be philosophically true, but tangibly true.

This is not schadenfreude. Much to the contrary, it's the continuous realization that humans are humans.

I don't know how to explain this, but it takes quite a bit of intellectual work, as black person--and probably as a white person--to feel that race really doesn't mean anything; that there really isn't anything wrong with you, and upon figuring that out, that there isn't anything wrong with them; that what feels so deeply like it must have some meaning--my brown skin, the shape of your eyes, their blonde hair--has none.

Do you know what it is, not to just to tell yourself that, not to just repeat it as mantra, not to just think it's true, not even to know it intellectually, but to actually believe it? To feel it?  It takes awhile for the thing to set in.

When we talk about my work, my Dad always says "Represent us," by which he means represent black people, and in the greater sense, represent for all of us who've suffered under the boot. And I've always taken that on, and I still take that on, and I love taking that on. It defines a major part of me.

But once you get how stupid this race piece is--that demonstrable fact reveals it to be a grand illusion--you can't help but feel like you are fighting in a small war, instigated by small minds, who could not cope with a large truth. And you feel diminished for engaging in it, even if you believe your cause in that war, righteous.

Because there's always a part of you that is individual, that would much rather walk across Europe and float through old museums, or touch the great walls in Zimbabwe, or stand overawed in the Valley of the Kings, and all without the baggage of who did what, under which color.

There's always some part of me that really wants to see Calais.