Monday, July 1, 2013


I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by footage shown on television earlier this week of President Obama speaking in Berlin. It wasn’t the specific contents of his remarks that I found so arresting, however, interesting though they were in their own right and particularly with respect to the offer the president made to reduce the American nuclear arsenal by one third if a corresponding reduction by the Russians were also to be made. Instead, it was the setting itself that drew me in, and particularly the image of the president addressing thousands of Germans massed at the Brandenburger Tor, the great neo-classical gateway at the top of the Unter den Linden that came first to symbolize divided Berlin when it was shut by the Communists in 1961 and then eventually instead to symbolize the reunification of the city when it was reopened in December of 1989 following the demolition of the Berlin Wall. It was in that place, in fact, that President Reagan had taunted Mikhail Gorbachev two years earlier to “open this gate” and “tear down this wall.” And earlier than that, it was exactly there that exactly fifty years ago President Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It was there too that President Clinton spoke in 1994 about his vision for peace in Europe after the eventual end of the Cold War.  And just five years before that, it had been there that Leonard Bernstein gave the performance of his life when he led the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony just months after the fall of the Wall, one in which the words to Schiller’s Ode to Joy were restored to their original version so as to allow the singers to sing, not specifically of joy, but instead of freedom itself as the “spark of God, the daughter of heaven.”

I remember all of those events, including President Kennedy’s speech. (I was just wrapping up fourth grade in June of 1963, but I have a clear memory of my father responding—and not kindly—to the president’s declaration that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin” and that the proudest thing anyone could say of him or herself was therefore that he or she was a Berliner.  Uncharitably—or so the ten-year-old me thought at the time—my father wondered aloud if that thought included the 75,000 Jews left living in Berlin in 1939 after the rest, 100,000 in their own right, had already fled for their lives, if their greatest source of pride—had they not been almost entirely deported to the east and murdered, that was—would also have been that they too were from Berlin.) As the years have passed, my feelings have—oddly—both sharpened and mellowed. But the emotions that the images of President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate stirred up in me were not specifically connected to my memories of JFK or my father, but to, of all things, a poem I remember learning by heart as a schoolchild and which still has the power to affect me (even though it now strikes me that I must completely have misunderstood it back then). I am thinking of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” first published in a London newspaper in 1811 and the bane of junior high school students ever since, yet (now that I am finally mature enough to read it seriously and listen to the poet’s lesson) a truly great poem about a traveler in an antique land nevertheless, and one I believe I still know by heart.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.

It was on January 30, 1933, the night that the archfiend became the chancellor of Germany, that his followers—mostly storm troopers but also including a wide variety of fellow travelers of various sorts—marched in torch-lit procession through Berlin to the Brandenburger Tor. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see an actual, bone-chilling 90-second-long clip of that march by clicking here.) Celebratory marches were held through the Gate to mark the fiend’s fiftieth birthday in 1939, following shortly by victory celebrations marking the conquest of Poland and the defeat of France in 1940. The Brandenburg Gate came to symbolize the Nazis’ rise to power and then, as it somehow survived all the Allied bombing raids and ended up standing all by itself in the center of a ruined city of rubble and ash, it came to symbolize the Nazis’ defeat and the annihilation of their dream of world conquest.  Like the statue in the desert Shelley’s traveler came unexpectedly across—two legs of a once monumental statue set upon a base made of stone—the Brandenburg Gate symbolizes to me (and, I think, to many) one specific aspect of the Nazi debacle: the overweening, megalomaniacal hubris of the Führer that led, when all was said and done, not to a thousand-year Reich but to the unwarranted, senseless deaths of over seventy million people including about fifty million civilians. It wasn’t all that was left, the Gate, but it might as well have been: once the gateway to a place of learning, culture, and sophistication, the Brandenburger Tor came at war’s end to symbolize only arrogance, evil, and the hubris inherent in self-arrogated superiority.

Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

But it is not only the rise and fall of Nazi Germany that the images of the president at the Brandenburg Gate awakened in me. It was, after all, the members of the Soviet Politburo that President Kennedy and President Reagan were addressing in their remarks, not the leaders of Nazi Germany. For the Soviets’ East German vassals, the Brandenburger Tor was also a kind of a symbol. Located at the western edge of what was to become East Berlin, the gate came to symbolize the foundational myth of the German communists according to which they were, not the perpetrators of German war crimes, but victims themselves of Nazi barbarism. It was beneath the Brandenburg Gate, for example, that Marshal Zhukov, the deputy Supreme Commander in Chief of the Red Army, received his decoration from Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery in July, 1945, celebrating his success in defeating the Nazis.

But where is that most powerful of empires today, the Soviet Union, that most terrifying of enemies from whose nuclear warheads we—and here I return again to the fourth grade—hid under our desks with our hands clasped over our heads during all those special take-cover drills at P.S. 196?  Young people today cannot, I sense sometimes, quite seize how real the Cold War was in those days, how seriously Americans took the war-mongering of the Soviet Union’s leaders in those days. And rightly so! Hadn’t the communist empire extended across half of Europe and huge portions of Eastern Asia, including China? Yet last week, when President Obama opened his remarks in Berlin by challenging the Russians to consider a reduction in their capacity to wage nuclear war, presumably against the United States, his words had an almost quaint ring to them. Are we still worrying about that? I suppose we are and we ought to be…but the terror Mrs. Drayson struck in our hearts as she instructed us to hide beneath our desks and to remain there until the danger of nuclear annihilation passed—for the moment!—sounds, even to me, hard to summon up nowadays even if the Russians still do have a huge nuclear arsenal. Near Ozymandias’ legs lay his shattered head, its lips alone protruding from the drifting, yellow sand. Once the scourge of the world, the “sneer of cold command” on those lifeless lips of stone could now provoke only amazement…and not at his great power but instead at how quickly things change, at how even the most powerful empires can lose their potency and their ability to provoke terror, and at how at the end of the day military might is mostly bluster and boastful rage that simply loses its ability to terrify when the statue falls over and the kings’ lips lie buried in the shifting desert sand.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And that brings me to my actual topic for this week, the onset next Tuesday of the Three Weeks. Everybody knows that there is a cycle of annual Jewish festivals based on the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, their journey to Sinai, and their subsequent peregrination in the desert. But there is a second annual cycle impressed on the months of the Jewish year, one rooted in the story of the destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE and far less well known than the Exodus cycle. Starting with the fast of the Tenth of Tevet commemorating the onset of the Babylonian siege, the cycle moves forward through the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz (which is next Tuesday and which memorializes the breaching of the walls of the city by the enemies’ hordes) to the far-better-known fast of the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the actual destruction of the Temple and the final defeat of its defenders. (A final fast on the third day of Tishrei, the day following Rosh Hashanah, memorializes the assassination of the Jewish governor put in place by the Babylonians by hotheads who considered him a willing collaborator with his people’s archenemies.)  And it is the twenty-one days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av that is the Three Weeks referenced above.  The faithful observe those weeks by beginning the mournful practices that are amplified dramatically once the month of Av begins and which reach their somber apogee on the Ninth of Av itself. Why the Jewish people hasn’t jettisoned all of this now that Jerusalem is the proud capital of an independent Jewish state is a question for a different essay (and possibly a different author), but here I want to write instead about the Babylonians.

Except for university professors specializing in Near Eastern history, who has even heard of these people outside the context of this specific story? Once a powerful empire capable of waging and winning wars anywhere in the world its armies could reach, the Babylonian Empire was defeated in battle by Cyrus of Persia not fifty years after they themselves had destroyed Jerusalem, and with that they vanished by the stage of world history.  To those living then, their defeat and eventual absorption into the Persian Empire must have seemed unbelievable. But, in the end, nothing else remained, just as nothing eventually remained other than the pedestal upon which Ozymandias’ boastful words were engraved just a bit too soon for “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare” lay only endless miles of “lone and level sands”…and the echoes of the arrogant past reverberating into an empty, impotent present.

And that is what the president’s visit to the Brandenburg Gate awakened in me as we segue from his trip to Germany to our journey into the Three Weeks.  To the victims of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, their eventual disappearance from the stage of history surely meant nothing at all, just as the defeat of the Babylonians meant nothing to those who had earlier died defending Jerusalem. But there’s also the long picture to consider here…and it is precisely that way of thinking of things that lends the Three Weeks their grandeur and enduring meaningfulness. The Jewish people has known the world’s most powerful empires as its enemies. Each foe had the capacity utterly to destroy and mercilessly to vanquish yet ended up itself destroyed and vanquished instead, then unceremoniously piled onto what President Reagan memorably once called “the ash heap of history.” When I contemplate fasting on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, I usually think that I ought to have an image in my mind of the Holy City razed and devastated. I suppose I do, but alongside that image is also a mental picture of Ozymandias’ “vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing all by themselves in the middle of an endless desert and symbolizing both the ultimate fragility of power and the eternal nature of the Jewish people…and its inviolate right to the pursuit of its own destiny regardless of the machinations of evil empires as they come and go.

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