“And they all came to watch!” The young woman sounded incredulous and, at the same time, most thrilled about her own narration. She pointed at the imagined library ceiling that had burned down in a blazing fire in September 2004. The Anna Amalia library had been in the process of bringing its rare historical books into an underground garage. The move was only a few weeks away from completion when the fire happened. About sixty percent of historical music sheets burned down if I remember correctly. The unique Rococo reading hall was destroyed entirely. Today we find a restoration of this library open to visitors again. But the fire had taken its toll on the heart of Weimar, the humanist center of classical literature in Germany. Now it was reduced to a story by a young woman in a flowery dress, straight hair colored red, and round glasses; a story which she excitedly told in English to a strikingly handsome man of possibly Middle Eastern descent. He politely listened and seemed to enjoy her company, although perhaps in a way not matching her palpable excitement about his company and her current role in it.
It might have seemed like an enamoring scene of two early-twenty-somethings if it was not for the historical reality of that night in which the fire took place. People did not come to watch, suggesting a rather derisive spectator image of humankind. People came to help.
That night, many ordinary citizens arrived at the library building. They soon formed a human chain in a half-vain attempt to carry books out while bringing water buckets to the site simultaneously. When the library director arrived, he, against the warnings of the also arriving fire brigade and under threat to his own life, rushed into the building to retrieve and recover the oldest Luther translation of the Bible, a book of unmentionable cultural worth to everyone with a feeling for communal history.
Historical reality bears much more meaning than our later stories, sometimes. A certain trivialization of past events and their reformatting to fit contemporary purposes (whether innocuously individual aims of impressing a suitor or shapeless agendas serving a societal fad) has unmoored me in recent years. This underlying trivialization is what the young woman’s overheard tale reminded me of. How did she come to know that people merely came to watch? She must have been a toddler at the time. Why did the brave acts of ordinary people not make it into public memory? Did we stop caring for the reality behind the ‘true stories’ we are so excited to tell? This brief encounter made me feel that we are more captivated by ourselves with our storytelling than an engagement with historical events and perspectives in their deeper meaning for current events.
History is not a single story written for all and in stone, to be sure. But its humanistic worth, I believe, depends on care and empathy with past people and developments. If we cannot spare genuine compassion and consideration for those who came before us, and a genuine willingness to look beyond sensationalist gossip for mere presentation as consumption, I ask myself how much empathy we really have also for those in our present times that are not in front of our eyes.