The Desecration Of Reims
( Originally Published 1915 )
WARM weather has come again after the cold snap of the past week, and the first morning thought, after rising from a comfortable bed, must be to others, as it is to me, a feeling of thankfulness that our soldiers in the trenches will have better days. I stepped out on the balcony, and looked over Paris just waking to the day's work. The mist was rising, and the sun fell full upon the white basilica of Sacre Coeur. Paris was at my feet, from the dome of Val-de-Grâce to the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wheel. How happy my family will be when they come back from Finistère next week, and see how well I have fared in hunting for a new apartment!
When I went downstairs I was thinking of the f difference it makes in life to have one's loved ones around one. The anticipation of reunion almost compensates for months of separation. We know things in this life only by contrast. As the blackboard is needed to make visible the chalk, so pain is needed to make sensible joy.
The face of my concierge brought me rudely back to earth.
"What is it'?" I exclaimed. "Surely there is not bad news of your boy ?"
"Have you seen the paper, Monsieur ?" he asked, with tears in his voice. Or was it rage? He disappeared without enlightening me.
I hurried to my newsdealer. Some event has affected my concierge more deeply than the report of battles lost and thousands slaughtered.
The newspapers are not allowed these days to display a headline more than two columns in width. So they cannot feature out of the day's harvest one item that the eye catches with a glance. There is much the same story in the paper this morning, the usual Russian and Servian victories and the Germans at bay in their entrenchments on the Aisne. In the official communiqué, however, I notice that the Germans had destroyed the Cathedral of Reims by bombardment. This is, of course, a shock to me; but I look still further for the cause of the concierge's agitation. No, the military situation seems good on the whole, and no new developments stand out in the day's news. It must be the desecration of Reims.
And then I remembered the attitude of a peasant who had come to Paris from the neighborhood of Senlis at the time of von Kluck's march three weeks ago. He heard the news of the destruction of his home and his corps with indifference, but when he was assured that none of the historic monuments of the town itself had been injured, his face lit up with joy. " Thank God, thank God, thank God !" I wondered what there was to thank God about in the recital of the calamities that had fallen upon him. This wonder found expression in words. He answered simply, "God has not allowed the barbarians to harm our Cathedral."
Only one who has lived in the Old World can realize the Old World's affection for monuments of the past. I have never had this more strikingly impressed upon me than today. Often the affection is local, for the monument is local. But the Cathedral of Reims has around it the historical memories and religious affections of the French nation. The Cathedral of Reims was built to commemorate the spot where, through St. Rémy, the Franks received the Christian faith. Here the kings of France were crowned from the time of Clovis. Jeanne d'Arc made it a matter of vital importance that the French army undertake the journey to Reims across country held by the enemy in order that Charles VII might be made king of the nation by sanction and unction:
The Germans have destroyed the Cathedral of Reims, in spite of the fact that one of their principal newspapers, fearing this vandalism, pleaded against it. The Frankfurter Zeitung, on September 8, declared :
"Let us respect the French cathedrals, especially that of Reims, which is one of the most beautiful churches of the entire world. Since the Middle Ages it is particularly dear to the Germans. For the master von Bamberg gained from the statues of its doors the inspiration of several of his figures. The cathedrals of Laon, Rouen, Amiens, and Beauvais are also masterpieces of Gothic art. All these cities are at this hour occupied by the Germans. We shall regard with veneration these superb churches, and shall respect them as our fathers did in 1870."
Just three months ago, the Artist and I were in Reims. We had drifted in from Dormans over the narrow gauge railway on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning was flooded with sunshine, and there was in the air the smell that the earthworm loves. lt was one of those days when you prefer the preaching of Dr. Greenfields to that of any city parson.', But our train for the valley of the Ourcq did not leave till after lunch, so we wandered to the cathedral. I urged a plate of the front of the cathedral. The Artist demurred.
"Reims is so overdone," he said, but not with finality. For already his eyes were half-shut, and his head bent slightly to the left. I knew what that meant. He had discovered something attractive the scaffolding erected for the refection of the left-hand tower, And scaffolding goes well in copper-plate etching. I knew he was good for two hours at the least, just as good as if actually fettered to the spot where he stood. So I went inside the cathedral.
It was the Sunday after Fête-Dieu, and high mass was being celebrated in all the grandeur of the grandest church of France. Amidst the fragrance of the flowers and the soft light from the old windows, reflected upon those tapestries that were of the rarest treasures this world possessed, I listened to Cardinal Luçon plead against the dangers of prosperity.
Was that only three months ago? That splendid pageant, that picture of ecclesiastical dignity, of the Christian spirit in the hearts of men, that venerable figure clothed in purple ! What a change ! It was an old man this morning, just returned from the conclave in which the new Pope was elected, and detained in Paris by the interruption of railway communications, who sat with bowed head, nervously clutching at his sleeve and buttoning and unbuttoning the front of his cassock. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and the words came amidst convulsive sobs :
"I have just come back from Rome. I have not been able yet to get to my diocese. I knew already chat the venerable church of St. Rémy had suffered much, but I hoped that the destruction of the cathedral, cradle of Christian France, bound up with so many souvenirs of our national history, would be a burden of woe and anguish spared to my white hairs."
There were no words of comfort that could be said to a broken-hearted man.
"To God will be the retribution : in His hands are the scales of justice," were the phrases he muttered over and over again. "I must go home, if I can. But would to God I did not have to see Reims !"
Are we in the twentieth century? Is German Kultur only a veneer of civilizaticn ? Louvain was bad enough, but it did not strike the heart of France. Parisians feel today just as Americans would feel if an enemy should come and burn down the Philadelphia State House and throw the Liberty Bell into the Delaware River. The breach between France and Germany is now too wide to be healed. Much could have been forgiven, or at least forgotten. What happened in Reims on Saturday and Sunday has made a gulf that cannot be bridged over, even to the third and fourth generation.
In my appreciation two days ago of the feeling of the French in regard to the destruction of Reims Cathedral, I understated its significance, even though what I said was rather sweeping. With every hour indignation, or rather the wild rage of anger, has grown.
Ever since the beginning of the war one has had reason to believe that the Germans have no appreciation whatever of "psychological effects." They have thought that the exhibition of brute force, of vandalism, and heartless repression would terrorize non-combatants, paralyze the activity of the French army, and make the city of Paris willing to surrender. In order to bring about this effect, they have not hesitated to incur universal condemnation of their actions.' But they reveal a woeful lack of understanding of human nature, of Gallic nature particularly. For the more barbarous they have shown themselves, the more they have inspired the French to resistance.
Take the cathedral at Reims. It was probably destroyed in order to give the Parisians an example of what they may expect if the Germans are successful in the present battle and come again to attack Paris.' The cathedral stood in a position where it could be seen for twenty-five to thirty miles from the south and west. It has been a landmark on the horizon for the French armies since they started the present battle along the line from the frontier to Compiègne. As long as the cathedral was intact, the instinct of a chivalrous race rendered unwilling homage to the intention of the Germans to respect their most precious treasure. The moment the cathedral disappeared in flames and smoke, the Germans gave to the French army an incentive, an inspiration, an impulse to fight, far more valuable than the reinforcements of a quarter of a million of fresh troops.
The Germans have thought to strike terror and dismay. Instead of that, they have aroused a spirit of determination, that cannot fail to bring about their defeat. If the destruction of the cathedral at Reims is a token of what we may expect at Paris,' every Frenchman on the battle line, having this warning, says to himself that it is only over the bodies of a million dead men that the German cannon will now get within range of Notre Dame.