The Nazi SS had its work cut out for it in Prague, chasing down resistance members. Hundreds of people and their families were tortured to death in the dreaded subterranean chambers of the SS headquarters. Men, women, and children, dismembered and displayed to their family members, all in the name of the Reich.
Today, the same building is the Ministry of Agriculture. It stands two blocks from the building in which I take classes. I had passed it just the day before learning of the SS’s atrocities.
World War Two, a distant memory in America, lives in every city here. There are fewer than two thousand Jews in the Czech Republic, but every bookstore without fail has a section on Jewish history and the Holocaust. Speaking of bookstores, it seems that every book I pick up is a gripping story of a girl in the midst of the Nazi invasion, of a man remembering his life in the SS, of a woman tracing her family back through the war.
In the heart of the city, plaques grace corners and cobblestones, memorials to the dead. No one has to go out of the way here to see a “historical site”: they pass them on the way to work.
The blood was spilled on these streets, and it soaked into this soil. The entire continent is still reeling, trying desperately to understand a trauma generations old.
We don’t have that back home. Wars are distant, remote things, seen on our television, their cost counted in coffins delivered via plane. We howl with outrage at attacks on our soil, and spend years trying to recover from them.
But when I tried to make a simple dichotomy, US=history remote, Europe=history present, something stopped me. I wondered when the last land war occurred in America.
We call it the Civil War. Or the War Between the States. The War For Southern Independence. And in certain places, it’s just “The War.”
A few decades for the Europeans? We’ve been keeping a fascination with the Civil War alive for a century and a half!
For some reason, when blood is spilled at home it gains an almost supernatural hold over us. Until a new war wipes it out, a piece of our psyche is just locked in that moment. The dead seem to be reaching out, and entire countries hold their breath to listen.
We’re lucky it’s only the South that the Civil War was fought in, because I think it frees the rest of us to look towards the future.
America is often called a country without a history, where one hundred years is reckoned a ludicrous period. And this is true, as is so often decried by Europhiles and educated people.
But maybe that’s not as bad as we think. We have our sins and our prides, but we get to live without them either dragging us down or lifting us up. Whether its morally good or not, most Americans do not feel the weight of the dead around their necks every day. In Europe, everyone remembers. No one can forget.