Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves by Keith Lowe - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Lest We Forget

Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves


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The past will evidently not stand still. In March this year, more than three quarters of a century after the Bohemian village of Lidice was razed in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the director of the memorial there was forced by the Czech minister of culture to resign because she failed to denounce a historian whose researches did not accord with the officially sanctioned martyrology. The government was pushed into this action by communist veterans wedded to the polarised certainties of victors’ history and hostile to the multiple ambiguities in the massacre’s commemoration.

When I went to Lidice in 1987, two years before the Velvet Revolution, I met Anna Nešporová, then in her late sixties and an indomitable survivor who had spent three years in Ravensbrück concentration camp. She had lost nearly all of her friends and family: husband shot, daughter stolen at birth. I didn’t realise at the time, when Czechs were still living under Gustáv Husák’s repressive, informant-pocked dictatorship, that she dared not talk about the communist regime’s treatment of her brother, who had fled the Nazi invasion to join the RAF, had returned to Czechoslovakia with his English wife in 1946 and had soon to flee again.

In 1987 Marie Uchytilová’s curious monument to the tragedy had not yet been created. Even if it had existed, it could not have been as touching and chilling as Nešporová’s testimony – which was, of course, verbal. Time after time throughout Prisoners of History, Keith Lowe’s commentaries are more articulate and supple than the monuments they describe, interpret and criticise. Without such commentaries, many of the monuments are reduced to the state of mute conceptual art that refers only to itself. Peter Eisenman’s frivolous ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in Berlin, for instance, evidently derives from the work of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, who have nothing to say, and say it. The narcissistic blankness of the emperor’s new art is even more insulting given that it bears, or ought to bear, a responsibility to the millions it supposedly commemorates. The German government, realising that bloated minimalism could ‘mean’ anything or nothing, insisted on an information centre being constructed beneath the memorial. The spectator who enters this facility is, then, caught in a mental trap, being instructed what to think, what to feel and how to react. Figurative works set that same trap without requiring explanation in another medium.

Lowe observes that the spectators gathered at the inauguration in 1952 of Gerhard Marcks’s ‘Journey over the Styx’, a monument to the victims of the Hamburg firestorm nine years earlier, were enjoined by the city’s first postwar mayor to ‘have the courage to see the real reason for the deaths of your fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters … it was only because they put themselves in the hands of violent criminals that violence overcame our families.’ That’s borderline exculpatory. Marcks’s monument emerged from the Bauhaus’s bogusly naive folksy tendency. The figures are diagrammatic, low-key archetypes that belong to a different race from the martial athletes and super-breeders of the Nazi visual canon. While its creation was occasioned by the partial destruction of Hamburg, it stands, seventy years on, as an exemplar of Germany’s tragic obedience. Where once the nation followed orders to conquer and murder, within a few years it had learned to follow orders to ostentatiously exhibit shame and guilt for the orders it had previously followed. Hence the complex of ‘information stations’ and memorials to slaughtered minorities in Berlin. Lowe suggests that ‘central Berlin is an open air museum dedicated to its troubled wartime and Cold War past’. He also notes that Hitler has no tomb.

It’s not needed. Germany is littered with Nazi-era infrastructure and buildings. The Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, in the Obersalzberg was Martin Bormann’s gift to Hitler, inaugurated on the Führer’s fiftieth birthday. One tour operator advertises a trip to it thus: ‘Travel by air-conditioned coach through Bavaria’s lush mountainscapes, and ride a bus and elevator to the lodge, 6,148 feet (1,834 metres) up Mt Kehlstein.’ The jocular commentary provided on the bus neglects to observe that the road it is taking was built by slave labourers. When I took the bus up there in the mid-1990s, my fellow passengers comprised a corps of octogenarian nostalgics and pilgrims, many in lederhosen, trachten jackets and dirndls. They were not organised. There was no ritual attached to their visit. At least they were not demonstrative, though they were hardly furtive either.

That is not the case at the village of Predappio, inland from Rimini, where Mussolini was born and is buried and where the defining industry is flogging Duce gewgaws. Three times a year his devotees, most of them hat fetishists apparently, gather to give thanks for the life of their lost leader, who was shot and then ignominiously strung from the roof of a petrol station, an insult they take personally. ‘They shot him, but they didn’t manage to kill him.’ Well, actually, ragazzi, they did. And they treated him and his mistress, Clara Petacci, with the contempt they deserved. It was news of this that convinced Hitler that a his’n’hers suicide was the only way to go.

There is nothing left of prewar Lidice. There is much left of the Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane, which Das Reich, a retreating SS division, set fire to in June 1944, having murdered 642 of its inhabitants. Everyday life and lives were annulled in a few hours. It is the most moving and eerie of the monuments Lowe writes about because it is not really a monument. It is a ruin that is a crime scene frozen in time.

Its peculiar status is owed to its having very swiftly been designated a symbol of French martyrdom, part of the Resistance’s ‘halo of glory’, even though there was no Resistance activity in the village. The architect charged with preserving the ruins called it a ‘sacred place’, a memorial not only to the victims but also to ‘the savagery of the German race’. More than a dozen of the murderers were not German but Alsatian. Since the first trial of them at Bordeaux in 1953, the culpability of these young men has been constantly challenged. Do the 130,000 men of the Grand Est who fought for Germany deserve the perhaps euphemistic name they have given themselves, les malgré-nous (‘against our will’), a plea signalling their helplessness in the face of conscription by the Nazis?

By comparison, the means by which the infinitely greater slaughter at Stalingrad is commemorated are straightforward. The soldiers of that battle are eulogised in an extraordinary complex of mausoleums and statues on a hill called Mamayev Kurgan, which culminates in the astounding ‘The Motherland Calls’, baroque, martial, magnificent, uplifting and 280 feet high. The view of it as swollen kitsch is very wide of the mark. It is an aptly heroic work that honours the dead. It also belittles the living. Beneath the hill, people subsist in shacks. They work in a richly polluted atmosphere. The Volga is often invisible, shrouded beneath a psychedelic canopy of melding smokes. Much of Volgograd – Khrushchev changed Stalingrad’s name in 1961 – is crumbling. It’s a great place to be a corpse.

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