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For Christmas 1961 my mother bought me a nun’s suit from the St. Anthony Messenger magazine.
To St. Joseph’s Church I would make my pilgrimage, pry open the heavy wooden portals; dip fingers in holy water fonts; part the stained glass doors across the narthex; genuflect when reaching the communion rail; kneel before flickering votive candles; and beg with the earnestness of a 9-year-old zealot that the impassive Virgin oblige me with the sign I sought—a raised eyelid, the slightest finger movement.
But not all love of statues is idolotria. Those bronze and stone sculptures in our public spaces serve a purpose. Some honor causes that we shouldn’t honor, but the better ones offer dazzling verticals that relieve the monotony of unbroken horizontal planes. They hearken to past triumphs or defeats that lift our eyes from the tyranny of present troubles. To say nothing of a practical value: “Yo! Where can I find Oregon Steaks?” “Head east on Bilger at the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, then hang a left on South 10th Street.”
Statues lift our eyes from the tyranny of present troubles.
In his short story “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) Stephen Vincent Benét depicts a postapocalyptic place where every concrete reminder of the past has been razed to rubble. A young boy on a coming-of-age journey crosses the “forbidden river,” the great “Ou-dis-sun” (New York’s Hudson River), east of which there be ghosts. He stumbles upon broken blocks of stone with partial inscriptions. One, “the shattered image of a man or a god … made of white stone” who “wore his hair tied back like a woman,” reads, “ASHING.”
By August of 1944, Hitler’s war would sputter on for another nine months, but the Allies were steadily advancing toward Paris to join the Resistance after the Normandy invasion. Seasoned German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, military governor of the beleaguered French capital, received a cable from the Führer ordering the city be kept by any means possible—or left a field of ruins.
Stunned, von Choltitz shared the “field of ruins” letter with his aide, Col. Hans Jay, on the balcony of his headquarters in the Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli. He recalls years later: “In front of us the Tuileries lay in sunshine. To the right was the Place de la Concorde and to the left the Louvre. The scene merely underlined the madness of the medieval command.”
Explosives had been placed in Notre Dame, in the Chamber of Deputies, in the Dôme at Les Invalides, and were planned for the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower and bridges over the Seine. Field Marshall Walther Model, the only other officer to receive Hitler’s order, did not pass it on. Von Choltitz contacted friend Lt. Gen. Hans Speidel and reminded him that though Hitler had given the order, Speidel would be held responsible by history. Speidel fell in behind von Choltitz as fast as Joram’s watchmen behind Jehu (2 Kings 9:14-26).
The same afternoon, von Choltitz got a phone call from Luftwaffe commander Otto Dessloch. After cagily feeling each other out (the Gestapo were likely listening), each learned that the other was in agreement about the insanity of bombarding the monuments of Paris. Also of the mind that Paris must be preserved was Otto Abetz, ambassador to the Vichy government. Phoning von Choltitz to say goodbye before his departure, he asked if he could do a final favor, then himself came up with the idea to pen a letter to Foreign Minister Ribbentrop complaining of von Choltitz’s “brutal behavior in Paris”—thus assuring that the military commander would not fall afoul of the Führer.
Thus a few among Germany’s top officers, having seen their own Berlin reduced to smithereens, thought it not a pleasure to inflict upon their victors a like ravaging, rather sparing bronze and stone and marble of the Paris that they could not hold.
If Germans spared France final ignominy, how can it be, I ask myself, that fourscore years after that dust has cleared, our foes need not bestir themselves to topple our great monuments—for our own sons are glad to do it for them?