While Notre Dame was burning on Monday, several American commentators referred to the book, and subsequent movie, “Is Paris Burning?” – about the German general who allegedly disobeyed Hitler’s orders to level the city during the retreat of 1944.
The cathedral is a geographical center for France, and the beating heart of Paris to all of us who visit and love it -- or even have the privilege of living there for a month here and there.
We took our three children to Paris in April of 1975, almost immediately visiting Notre Dame, where our youngest fell in love with the gargoyles who still broodingly guarded over the city, even as flames raged on Monday. On that family trip, three decades after the War, we talked about World War Two, grateful that this beautiful city, this beautiful cathedral, had survived.
On Monday, les pompiers, the firefighters, controlled the blaze. Paris was burning. Of course, people thought about the book and the movie.
However, when I went to the Web, I realized there is considerable historical debate about whether General Dietrich von Choltitz overtly acted to save Paris or merely dragged his feet, while saving his own life and shoring up one tattered corner of his reputation. Did the general really say no?
"If he saved only Notre Dame, that would be enough reason for the French to be grateful," the general's son, Timo, told a British newspaper in 2004. "But he could have done a lot more.”
The general’s alleged act of refusal and respect for a glorious city – perhaps self-aggrandizement -- comes up sometimes when conscience is the subject. From my American perspective, I immediately linked the survival of Paris, the endurance of the cathedral on the Île de la Cité, with overt acts of terror and torture perpetrated by Donald Trump on the border with Mexico.
Who says no? Who follows the law? Who cares for fellow humans? The legend of a general who participated in the Holocaust, is back in the ozone, revived by the horrible fire.
We want to be grateful to a German general who may have said “No,” but there are so many questions. He said he acted out of military prudence, as a trained general, who surely considered himself above the unskilled, ignorant, raving “leader.”
Germany of the ‘30s never had enough leaders who could say “no.” Does any nation have enough people in positions of power, responsibility, who can muster the inner strength to say no?
This is a very current debate for those Americans who now consider the military – the tradition of service, adherence to law – as one of the last strengths of the nation.
Who will say no? I am reminded of this every time I see videos of one of Trump’s people, Kirstjen Nielsen, sighing patronizingly when questioned by (Democratic) representatives about putting children in cages. Soon afterward she was pushed out by Trump for not doing enough to separate and harm (torture, if you will) les misérables on our borders.
The urge to survive, by Gen. von Choltitz might have helped save Paris in 1944. Is inaction enough when evil orders are given? Who will say no?
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(Why We Still Hunker)
“….this is really an old person’s disease now. That was true at the beginning of the outbreak, but it’s becoming even more true now. It’s quite possible that we’ll see increasing relative vulnerability among the old, which is to say people who are in middle age are going to feel pretty safe living a totally normal life. But people of their parents’ generation may not ever. That’s because they have a much harder time building up immunity, which means they lose the benefits of the vaccines and previous exposure much more quickly.
---Jonathan Wolfe, The New York Times, daily Coronavirus Briefing, Aug. 3, 2022
Should Donald Trump Be Prosecuted?
Rep. Liz Cheney, on ABC TV:
“Ultimately, the Justice Department will decide that. I think we may well as a committee have a view on that and if you just think about it from the perspective of what kind of man knows that a mob is armed and sends the mob to attack the Capitol and further incites that mob when his own vice president is under threat, when the Congress is under threat. It's just -- it’s very chilling and I think certainly we will, you know, continue to present to the American people what we found.”