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Angelus Novus on the Somme

Friday, 1 July, 2016

Thousands have gathered for a ceremony in northern France today to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916. More than a million troops were killed and wounded in the battle, one of World War One’s bloodiest. Despite the progress of the Industrial Revolution in producing ever more deadly weaponry, all sides proceeded to hurl human fodder out of the trenches and at the canons for five months. The storm of war irresistibly propelled them into the future.

Angelus Novus is a 1920 print by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The radical German-Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin bought it in 1921 and in his 1940 essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, he wrote:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The storm continues to rage. The lessons of the Somme must never be forgotten.

Angelus Novus


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