The 9th and the 11th
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Categories: Ancient, Modern, Not an expert

The 9th and the 11th

The plaque in memory of the Canadian Corps outside the Malatesta wall and the Roman gate of Rimini, October 2018

A few weeks ago I came to Rimini from the north fresh from the silversmith’s church in Ravenna. Caesar came that way a long time ago as the first strike in his civil war, but seventy years ago the Canadian Corps was marching the other way round along the beaches and through the wheat fields and gardens. They took it on 21 September, and as the sad song says “debouched onto the Po.” And that was a very hard thing to do, because by September 1944 the German army was very good at defending static positions with Teller mines and machine-guns and Panther turrets atop concrete bunkers, and it was very important, because the Nazis were determined to keep the murder-machine running until the last camp was overrun. Canadians know something about what happened, because Farley Mowat was able to write about that campaign twice: once in the safe jargon of The Regiment, and again more personally in And No Birds Sang after the scar tissue had thickened and he could not assume that his readers were up on the technical details. It took the Romans two hundred years to conquer Italy, and it took the allies less than two to liberate it, but those two years were time enough to bleed.

A series of posters of personal effects with names and short biographies printed on them
Maria Nanmova, Tadeusz Markowski, Ernö Gottlieb, Rudz de Wijs, Nathan van Dam, Iwan Krzwiak, Mayimiery Biel, Helga Thörl … most died in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944 or 1945 of hunger, overwork, epidemic disease or misplaced allied bombs. The #stolenmemory: Returning Memories Stolen from Nazi Victims exhibition in Innsbruck.

This weekend spans two anniversaries: Kristallnacht on Friday, and the end of the First World War on Sunday. They have put a roof back on the temple in Rimini and scraped the molten lead off the sculptures, but there are thinly-disguised fascists plotting murder in every country I have visited but Iran,* and Krak Des Chevaliers has fallen to its last besiegers, and I do not know what to do. So I will return to the paradox that comes up again and again in these posts.

Most wars are remarkably stupid and wasteful things (did you know that when Austro-Hungary stripped the Russian frontier bare and invaded Serbia in 1914, it was driven back out in a few days?) And yet sometimes you find yourself in 1944, and the only way to end the horror is to fight your way through. You can debate whether Canada has been wise to join the great power game and dutifully send troops to first British and then American wars, and grumble about the bureaucratic madness that left Paul Hellyer learning one set of parade-ground drill for the Air Force, then another for the Army after the Air Force decided it did not need him, and my grandfather Reginald Bull shaving his hairless cheeks every day. But the men and women who find themselves at war don’t have time and distance to appraise the situation with Olympian detachment, and they make decisions in Romulus’ dump for petty or glorious human reasons. And there are times when it is very very important to have some good men-at-arms on your side.

The war memorial on the Kalvarienberg over Hötting, March 2018.

* Iran has its own political problems and politicians who rant about Jews, but it would be hard to call their anti-semites fascists. Sadly, people with an irrational hatred of Jews find many different excuses for their obsession.

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