ISSUE 30
SUMMER 2000
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

preservation order

 
 


ONLINE contents

- smart procurement
- working together
- preservation order
- arabian connection
- conversion a faded ideal
- breaking the silence














‘If you visit Treblinka today you see an open field marked out with rough rocks serving as tombstones. On each stone is engraved the name of a town and the number of people from it killed in this camp. In the centre of the field there’s a mass grave and a memorial. The memorial has a huge crack across it, meant to express the wickedness of what happened here.’




































Jewish Museum, Berlin.
Based on patterns formed on the map by Jewish settlement in the city. Long corridors have sudden changes in height and axis; flights of steps rise to solid walls; paths are cobbled so you’re forced to walk in the slow awkward manner of herded people. The building itself is a memorial, and there’s strong feeling that it needs no furnishing. Its very emptiness immediately and powerfully evokes the vanished dead. Go there now, before someone fills it with distracting exhibits.

 


THE FULL ‘truth’ of past events may never be known, but we still have to decide how to preserve, record and present them. History can be - has been - erased, rewritten, misinterpreted, twisted to suit; even a plain record provokes speculative interpretation, because of what it leaves out. The material evidence of war is, sadly, a substantial part of the world’s heritage: much of history has been defined by armed conflict. What ways, then, might pacifists suggest for preserving the evidence of conflict, to reinforce movement towards a world in which war is, well, history? Here are some glimpses from the edge, and some questions to ponder. The erasing of history is a political act; but so is preserving it.

ONE
In 1926 a remarkable institution was built near Warsaw. The Medem sanatorium was a recuperation centre for children of the Jewish poor; it was also a model for a dreamed-of socialist state, and run as a democracy with the children’s participation. In 1942 the staff and children were deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka.

In the 1950s the building was used by Ministry of Education staff, who admitted that they didn’t know its history; in the 1980s it was demolished entirely. There’s now only a stone with a short inscription: ‘Here in these grounds the Home Army maintained a home for Polish children, 1942-45’. A piece of history had been completely erased.

Few children of the Medem are alive now; there remain a 1935 prize-winning documentary - which was banned in Poland - and a few photographs. What, if anything, could be done to keep the memory of their living experiment alive, without bitterness, in its home country, where the Jewish population today is less than ten thousand?

TWO
The parliament building in the Austrian province of Carinthia houses a group of murals, commissioned by the Nazi party in 1938 and depicting earnest citizens (and their children) doing reverence to the swastika with Nazi salutes. Whitewashed over after the war, they were restored in the 1970s, though screened by wooden panels. Now Jörg Haider, the son of Austrian Nazis and the Governor of Carinthia, has ordered the frescoes to be removed, as ‘a positive signal’ to encourage the EU to drop sanctions against Austria. The sanctions were imposed in protest at the inclusion of Haider’s ultra-right-wing (and, it’s feared, racist) Freedom Party in the Austrian coalition government (democratically elected, by the book).

Though the frescoes are subject to a preservation order and will probably end up in a museum, some people want them destroyed, as repugnant propaganda paintings with little artistic importance. But a Carinthian archivist points out: ‘If we destroy the pictures we destroy the past. That would be a Nazi way of reacting.’ He has a point.

So what are the peace-promoting choices? Concealment? But censorship always brings the censor’s motives into question. Restricted access? How could that be achieved without the wrong sort of discrimination, or adding allure? Is it the propaganda that’s repulsive, or something else?

THREE
Last year building workers in Berlin uncovered the bunker where Hitler died. The city’s conservation chief said it wouldn’t be destroyed, but ‘it must not become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis. The big worry is that it will attract the wrong sort of people.’ This year, Jörg Haider was refused admission to Canada’s Holocaust Museum. The Canadian Jewish Congress advised the museum ‘not to accommodate this bizarre request’.

Holocaust museums, memorials and exhibitions, where relics are keenly competed for by curators (‘the finding of a particularly good yellow star was a source of jubilation’), have proliferated in recent years, notably in America after the release of the film ‘Schindler’s List’. However serious their exhibitions, museums are essentially places of entertainment whose curators must find ways to catch and reward their visitors’ attention - some of which are open to question. A Visitors’ Book at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington contains such remarks as: ‘This was great’ and ‘We really enjoyed learning about all the horrible things that happened in Nazi Germany’. A writer, watching a looped video (set up behind a low wall to keep it from young children’s eyes) endlessly replaying footage of death squads in action, wrote with troubled disgust in his notebook: ‘Peep show format. Snuff films.’

Others have asked why, if the Shoah now holds people’s attention to history so well, there are no memorial museums to American Indians, or black slaves (‘Slavery was, and remains, an American holocaust. It lasted twenty times as long. It killed ten times as many people.’), or the further millions killed in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. But in any case, as that troubled writer meditated, ‘there is something dangerously facile about opposing evil fifty years after the fact’, something downright wrong in the presentation of the Shoah as ‘a therapeutic mass-cultural experience’.

Perhaps a recent travelling exhibition in Germany suggests one effective way of handling difficult history. Its curator - defying federal law - put together papers from Cologne’s wartime tax archives, which he smuggled out and photocopied. It took him nine months. The exhibited pages include domestic inventories which every Jewish family in 1941 was ordered to provide, itemising all possessions, including clothes and personal treasures. There are also cargo manifests concerned with the transport of these cruelly confiscated items to auction, and the auction catalogues in which they were listed. There are deportation orders for their former owners. And there are restitution claims made by the few who returned to try to trace and recover their private property. Everything was meticulously recorded. ‘These files show that all levels of society were involved,’ says the curator. ‘In the auction records you see items being bought by factory workers, the churches, the town orphanage. It’s all legal; it’s all official; it’s all normal. It’s criminality by legal means.’

Some local authorities elsewhere in Germany have now agreed to open their archives; others nervously want to keep them out of reach - of ‘the wrong sort of people’? Documentary evidence like this, both deeply personal and unnervingly impersonal, speaks for itself, needing little explanation or spin. As a Green MP said, ‘We have to have an honest discussion about the past, because only then can we stop tendencies in the same direction.’

‘Honest discussion’ about crimes against humanity, aimed to stop similar crimes - is it possible? Can it be an essential part of education, or only stimulated casually by exhibitions, documentaries, books? How can accuracy - honesty - be tested and ensured? And should anyone, anyone, be excluded from these things?

 
 


Opposite Berlin's Humboldt university in the middle of the vast Bebelplatz small groups of people can be seen peering on the ground, even kneeling for a closer look, moving this way and that to bring what might be there into focus. Peering through the thick one and a half meter square sheet of glass, through the reflections of sky, clouds and buildings white shapes slowly come into focus. Is this a picture under the glass or can it be actually a room under the courtyard? If so why, and are those really rows and rows of empty white shelves? what's it all about? Many are puzzled by what they see or don't see; some find a plaque set into the ground some 20 metres away which explains what happened on this spot long before most were born. Many simply walk away bemused.

The Empty Library is an haunting monument to the book burning. It marks the spot where on May 11, 1933 the infamous Buchoerbrennung, the burning of books that conflicted with Nazi ideology, took place.

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FOUR
In 1918-1919, on the marches between Europe and Russia where frontiers shifted to and fro like tides, Poles and Ukrainians fought for possession of an historic city, Lwów to the Poles, L’viv to Ukrainians. The Poles won, and built a grand new military cemetery in Lwów, next to the older municipal burial ground, to receive the bodies of young Polish heroes who had died in the fighting (the youngest was 13); it soon became a patriotic shrine.

With Soviet annexation in 1945, the cemetery was demolished, as were many cemeteries and monuments in the communist ‘campaign of oblivion’ against ‘obstacles to rewriting history’. But, post-1991, local Poles in newly-independent Ukraine, where L’viv was once again its second city, wanted to reconstruct their dead soldiers’ memorials. Mindful that the two countries had signed an agreement of mutual respect for their national minorities across the redrawn border, the L’viv authorities agreed. But they hadn’t bargained for the restoration of the original headstone inscriptions. These, of course, spoke of heroic Polish defiance of Ukraine: ‘They died that we should be free’. A substantial row followed. Finally a deal was thrashed out at top level, with the implicit acceptance that the controversial inscriptions would be dropped.

‘Isn’t that a falsification of history?’ asked a Polish reporter. ‘History’s a fickle floozy,’ said the mayor of L’viv, ‘What we need now is mutual understanding’.

The mayor of L’viv was right about mutual understanding. What strategies could a pacifist arbiter employ in approaching territorial difficulties where culture and respect for the dead are crucial issues and heritage is impeded by history in the making? How can we record deeds of war without sustaining the causes of it?

 
      

FIVE
‘They buried the hatchet, they became brothers, dividing our land, and we were left with nothing,’ said an old African. He was talking about the consequences of the Boer War. The real losers were black Africans, and historians have only recently begun to look at their part in the conflict. It’s said that many thousands of black and coloured people served with the British Army; at least 10,000 (‘often those who had been in the service of their employers for many years and who shared their ideals’) fought for the Boer cause. Kitchener’s scorched-earth policy devastated the Africans’ farms and villages, and they died in thousands in appalling refugee camps.

Last year South Africa embarked on an extensive schedule of events and activities to mark the Boer War centenary. Some efforts were made in the official literature to acknowledge black involvement in ‘everyone’s war’ that ‘sucked in all sectors of the population’. But out on the battlefield tourist trail and in the heritage sites marking the war’s course, strategies and personalities, there’s little sign of black people’s history.

In fact, the political correctness of the effort to recuperate black Africa’s experience of the war has shown signs of rebounding. ‘Instead of being written out of the past as a divider of races, the war is being inscribed into the past as an example of racial unification’ as though the 1902 Vereeninging Treaty hadn’t paved the way for nearly a century of brutal apartheid.

1902 was marked by another event: Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia and one of the Boer War’s architects, was buried in the site he’d chosen himself, a few metres from the grave of the African chief Mzilikazi in Zimbabwe’s Matopos Hills. The whole area is a focus for sensitive issues, not least the war between two international belief systems: Western Christianity and spiritualism. In these hills the African nationalist armies found a stronghold in the 1970s; in the 1980s ‘dissidents’ and government forces clashed here. In the present-day secular world, some people value the income from tourism; others want the Rhodes National Park to revert to farmland (and what white conservationists have called ‘wasteful traditional methods’).
Last year it was reported that a Shona group, adherents of the spirit mediumship which is a strong and ancient feature of Zimbabwean culture, were demanding that the British remove Rhodes’ bones from the country. For Bulawayans, however, Rhodes is part of the cultural landscape as much as of the land itself that holds his tomb. ‘History cannot be swept under the carpet, like the massacres in Matabeleland. Let us accept the misdeeds of the past, learn from them, and build a better future.’

‘History cannot be swept aside.’ But it often is, often in violent campaigns and confrontations. The past can’t be undone, but the present can be used to envisage a future without conflict. What can pacifist lateral thinking offer to Africa’s troubled present?

 
 





The Cloth Hall at Ypres is the largest non-ecclesiastical gothic building in Europe - and it’s less than 80 years old. The new In Flanders Fields interactive Museum of the Great War (opened in 1998 by Robin Cook British Foreign Secretary) is housed inside this remarkable copy, and contains (with much else) images of the Hall before it was destroyed, its ruins, and its scrupulous rebuilding: a strange and touching circle of visual and virtual memory.

 

SIX
The twentieth century has resounded with laments for loss of land, language, culture, memory. Some examples have become famous; others, more recent, are often overlooked. China’s assimilation of Tibet (where a 10-year old boy was imprisoned last year for refusing to repeat ‘I am a Chinese citizen’) means deliberately obliterating Tibetan history. In the 1970s Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge systematically set about the destruction of what they called ‘corrupt’ Cambodian culture, victimising the educated and burning books. In the 1990s the French National Front ordered, in the libraries of municipalities where they held power, the banning of literature not part of the ‘true French cultural heritage’.

Conflict over land, in particular, is universal. As professors of politics point out, ‘the territorial state system, and nationalism as a political ideology, are essentially modern phenomena’. When the US Holocaust Museum was first mooted, in 1984, the Israeli ambassador told the Mayor of New York: ‘the Jewish people do not want any more monuments to the memory of the dead. We have only one monument: the state of Israel’.

Armenians have been called ‘the Israelis of the southern Caucasus’. In 1915 they were the victims of attempted genocide at the hands of the Turks. As Hitler famously said, giving his orders for slaughter in Poland, ‘Who remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?’ They do, and they cling to their ethnicity all the more strongly. The self-styled republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, its population mostly Armenian, lies in Muslim Azerbaijan; at the end of the 1980s Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over it. Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994, which has held; but no peace treaty has yet been signed. And over this conflict and others falls the shadow of global interests in oil from the Caspian seabed, demanding safe pipe-lines through conflict zones.

Neither side wants fighting to start again, but Karabakh Armenians are determined to sustain their link with Armenia proper. There’s now a newly-built road, paid for with donated dollars, running from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Along it, you pass the ruins of Azeri towns, their bricks hauled away to help rebuild the Karabakh capital, and there’s an immobilised tank commemorating an Armenian putsch. One Azeri town has been resettled with Armenians: a new church has been built for them, and an ethnic museum. ‘It’s a sort of peaceful revenge, to save Karabakh and have no more massacres, no more victims.’

Karabakh, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine: some of the regions where ethnic groups are placed, displaced, and replaced in the effort to sustain cultural identity and resist oppression. What kinds of tact, what kinds of reform can pacifists propose as possible routes to peaceful cohabitation?

 
 

 _______
‘In November 1989 the world watched in disbelief as citizens of a divided Germany reduced portions of the Berlin Wall to rubble. Shortly thereafter, that chilling symbol of American engagement in the Cold War, the guard’s hut from Checkpoint Charlie, was hoisted into the air, lowered on to a flatbed truck, and driven away. The end of the Cold War led the US Department of Defense to rethink its global commitments. The Department also seized the opportunity to ensure that the record and meaning of its activities during the Cold War are preserved while the evidence remains fresh.’
US Legacy Cold War Project (from an official internet statement)

 

SEVEN
Sometimes conflict itself provides the most eloquent warning monuments. Near Ypres some pockets of the old trench systems have been preserved, filling with water when it rains just as they did in 1918, smelling eerily of 1918’s metal and mud. At Orford Ness you can visit the roofless, rust-streaked laboratories where people worked on Britain’s atom bombs. At Auschwitz, heaps of human hair and shoes say more of individual tragedies than any narrative. Rows of clean skulls laid out in Cambodia: impersonal (so many of them) and yet direct, as your eyes meet each pair of empty sockets. Rwandan corpses, piled high on tables in otherwise empty rooms, their faded blood-stained garments strung on lines overhead: unburied, they can’t be forgotten. The broken-backed bridge at Novy Sad, destroyed by NATO bombing: people come to take photographs of it, though not of the new bridge that’s been quickly and quietly built a couple of hundred metres away.

Of course the ways these relics are left to speak for themselves also reveal the attitudes and culture of the people who make them available to see. But it’s simple statements like these that carry the least political baggage; that can, on the whole, be trusted.

Positive gestures of memorial can take many forms. Churchill wanted the ruins of Ypres to be preserved as an eternal warning, but the citizens preferred to rebuild an almost exact replica. Or there’s the new Jewish Museum in Berlin: its designer, Daniel Liebeskind, worked from a pattern formed on the map by Jewish settlement in the city. Long corridors have sudden changes in height and axis; flights of steps rise to solid walls; paths are cobbled so you’re forced to walk in the slow awkward manner of herded people; there’s a tower four storeys high rising to a mere slit of light. In short, the building itself is a memorial, and there’s strong feeling that it needs no furnishing. Its very emptiness immediately and powerfully evokes the vanished dead. Go there now, before someone fills it with distracting exhibits.

In Minsk, the capital of Belorus, freedoms of speech and press are still notoriously harassed, Lenin’s statues still stand, and the KGB hasn’t changed its name. But in the heady days of December 1991 they renamed the 15-mile highway to the airport. Once Lenin Prospect, and before that Stalin Prospect, it now became Frantsisk Skaryna Prospect, in honour of one of the greatest cultural heroes of Belorus: the father of Belorusian printing. In the beginning was the word. We have to start talking, and go on talking - and asking the right questions - until the risk of war has gone.

What do we preserve from the past? Why? What message does it carry into the present? Why is it so hard to learn from the past? How can heritage be protected from politics and hate agendas? How can hostile images from the past be transformed to indicate and invite a change from war to peace? Would it be better if we....? What if....?

 
     


 
     

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