On Borders and Monuments

This reflection on borders begins with the Monument to Victory in Bolzano, built by the Fascist regime in 1928 to remember Italian soldiers who fell in the First World War and to celebrate the victory over the Austro-Hungarian army. A reading from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering will follow.

The monument was controversial and opposed by the German-speaking majority in the province of South Tyrol that was annexed to Italy after WW1. Today the monument remains controversial despite being accepted by the entire South Tyrolean community.

Since 2014, it hosts along a permanent exhibition (under the title “BZ ’18–’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships”) focusing on the history of the monument, within the context of Fascism and the Nazi occupation during WW2.

In the museum inside the monument you will find inscriptions that concern above all the historical time and the idea of borders and boundaries like the following expression of Fascist nationalism that can be read in Latin on the facade monument itself: “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point we educate others with language, law and culture.”

The exhibition is particularly critical and self-reflexive about the role of this monument and the monuments in general in keeping traces of the past alive. What is the function of the monuments? Is it still needed? Are there alternative ways to remember the past?

These are some of the questions that the visit to this monument-museum poses.


At the beginning of the  precious little book by the German born writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) entitled Wandering (1919-1920) there is a profound ethical reflection on borders. The author was able to remain true to the highest spiritual and cultural values ​​amid the collapse of European civil society during  WWI. While participating in the war as a volunteer in the imperial army –where he was assigned to the care of prisoners of war– he refused the general war enthusiasm of the time and in 1914 wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”) published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to appeal to his fellow European intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic folly and hatred. As he write in his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Prize he received in 1946,

when the First World War broke out each year brought me more and more into conflict with German nationalism; ever since my first shy protests against mass suggestion and violence I have been exposed to continuous attacks and floods of abusive letters from Germany.

Wandering (Wanderung) is one of Hermann Hesse’s most poetic works. It records thoughts and observations of someone who is traveling to rediscover the meaning of life and death and the importance of invisible spiritual values, such as the mystical sense of belonging and love for life and nature in all its forms.

In his autobiographical notes he lists his philosophical and spiritual influences,

of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.

Another significant influence on Hesse, not listed in his autobiographical notes, has been St. Francis. Notably, Hesse wrote a biography of St Francis (1904) and derived from him and some of the sources listed above (Indian and Chinese philosophy) the idea of the divine presence first and foremost in nature, in trees (see post of March 21, 2019), streams, meadows, clouds, or birds.  Hence the mystical and religious sense of life so widespread in Wandering, which is capable of establishing a dialogue, an intimate conversation with the small creatures of the earth and the particular attention to the most apparently insignificant details of animated and inanimate life in the style of conversation with the birds of St. Francis …

Giotto, Assisi, St.Francis talking to the birds

The juxtaposition of St. Francis to the Eastern Buddhist mysticism that we see in a certain way in Hermann Hesse recalls that between Milarepa and St. Francis which is established by Reinhold Messner in his Museum of the Mountain of Bolzano. Messner also insists on the importance of human dialogue with the mountain, nature in general in the formation of mystical human spirituality.
Immediately after the end of World War I, Hesse embarked on a journey south. Throughout his life he has been a traveler and this trip to Ticino –where he resettled alone in the town Montagnola near lake Lugano and renting four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi– is one of the most important of his life in incorporating the reflections, experiences and premises of the great masterpieces that will follow.

He crossed the Alps hiking from North to South experiencing the moment in which German architecture, German countryside and language come to an end. He wanted to get away from a world that, although familiar, he did not accept anymore. He needed to rediscover his own world; he was looking for a new meaning in his life after the horror and agony of war. After millions of military and civilian casualties fallen in the war to defend national borders, how could one now think of borders? What was their value? Here is his answer:

How lovely it is to cross such a boundary. The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. But the longing to get on the other side of everything already settled, this makes me, and everybody like me, a road sign to the future. If there were many other people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptible than borders. They’re like cannons, like generals: as long as peace, loving kindness and peace go on, nobody pays any attention to them — but as soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred. While the war went on, how they were pain and prison to us wanderers. Devil take them! (5)

The hike and crossing of the borders of the Alps is counter posed to the farmhouse that he leaves behind to undertake his new journey.

Farmhouse, Hermann Hesse, Wandering

In drawing his farmhouse he reflects,

Once again I love deeply everything at home, because I have to leave it. Tomorrow I will love other roofs, other cottages. I won’t leave my heart behind me, as they say in love letters. No, I am going to carry it with me over the mountains, because I need it, always. I am a nomad, not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol. Whenever our love becomes too attached to one thing, one faith, one virtue, then I become suspicious (6).
Hesse’s ethical reading opens a series of important questions about the role of borders in our time. What is their function? Are they to be conceived in an absolute sense or in a relative and contextual sense? Do they remain essential for establishing individual and national identities? Has the time come to rethink the boundaries in a new, dynamic way more responsive to the needs not only of particular communities but also of the whole of humanity?
Bibliography

Giotto Assisi  Fresco 10. Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/SS37414_37414_38037347. Web.
Hermann Hesse. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. London: Triad Paladin Grafton, 1988. Print.
—. Hermann Hesse – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Tue. 16 Jul 2019. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1946/hesse/biographical/&gt; Web