Thursday, January 07, 2010

War memorials


Respect for the dead
Jan 7th 2010

The messy politics of war memorials

WAR cemeteries are poignant places, better suited for reflection than controversy. In Vilnius, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and others, all fierce foes in their day, rest in the same hallowed ground. In the British war cemetery in Berlin, aircrews lie in the earth that their bombs once churned. In Bitola in Macedonia, a huge German war memorial-cum-cemetery dating from the first world war glowers over the town from a nearby hill. Rebecca West, a Germanophobe British writer of the interwar period, called it “monstrous”. Local authorities have been more generous-spirited, leaving it untouched for nearly 90 years.

Some war memorials make no political statement. The Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, designed by Edwin Lutyens, bears the names of 72,000 fallen British soldiers from the 1914-18 war. It does not try to say anything about the origins of the war or who won it. British memorials usually bear an epitaph on the lines of this: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, ‘for their tomorrow, we gave our today’.” That may strike the modern eye as a bit maudlin, but nobody could find it offensive.

The Soviet war memorials in Vienna and Berlin, in contrast, are built in the hearts of each city with demonstrative and meticulous attention to Stalinist iconography and cliché. “Eternal Glory to the Heroes of the Red Army, fallen in the fight against the German-fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of Europe” reads the inscription on the Viennese one, in Schwarzenbergplatz.

Given what actually happened in the Soviet-occupied part of Europe after 1945, views may differ on the merits of that inscription. Some Austrians, ungratefully, nicknamed it the “Looter’s memorial” or the “Unknown rapist”. Some have tried to blow it up or otherwise vandalise it. But it is protected by law, dating from the 1955 treaty in which Austria regained its independence from the liberator-occupiers.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the former Soviet republics were under no such legal requirement to preserve or protect war memorials. That gives them more freedom of manoeuvre, though whether they use it wisely is another matter. In 2007 Estonia abruptly moved a Soviet war memorial from a conspicuous position in the centre of Tallinn to the military cemetery on the capital’s outskirts, provoking riots among local Russians who saw the move as blasphemy towards past generations’ sacrifice and heroism. Though the government’s tactics and timing were indeed questionable, the motivation was understandable—for Estonians the statue epitomised their country’s 50-year occupation, during which its own military memorials had been obliterated.

In December Georgia took things a step further when it demolished a colossal 46m-high Soviet war memorial in Kutaisi, the country’s second city. Bungled use of explosives killed two bystanders, a mother and child. The official, somewhat contradictory, explanation was that the monument needed restoration and in any case stood on a site needed for a new building to house the country’s parliament.

It is easy to see why Soviet monuments are resented in places that see themselves as former captive nations of the evil empire. Railing against them may win votes. But vindictiveness is not a good policy. Relocating monuments to neutral locations, preferably with proper consultation, no haste, and all due decency, is one thing. Cheerfully destroying them is another.

Respecting different approaches to the past is a hallmark of a free plural society just as forcibly rewriting it is a hallmark of totalitarianism. That does not make monuments sacrosanct (you will search in vain for a German military cemetery with a swastika). But the dead deserve to be treated with respect, however flawed or horrible the cause in which they died.


Undergroundman said...

"The Soviet war memorials in Vienna and Berlin, in contrast, are built in the hearts of each city with demonstrative and meticulous attention to Stalinist iconography and cliché. “Eternal Glory to the Heroes of the Red Army, fallen in the fight against the German-fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of Europe”

The way in which Soviet War memorials do tend to be overtly propagandistic should not detract from the fact that many ordinary Red Army soldiers died bravely in liberating Central-Eastern Europe.

To make condescending comments about the way the Stalinist regime imposed inscripted cliches on the Red Army monuments is no need to denigrate the sacale of the sacrifice made by them.

Mass rapes were common but not every Red Army soldier nor a majority of Soviet soldiery were rapists so to insinuate that Soviet Army monuments are memorials to the 'unknown rapist' or 'looter'

This to make a joke about the "ungratefulness" of the local population is to collude in the kind of nationalist hatred that notions of a "New Cold WAr" are regenerating in the places like the Baltics.

Most obvious this has been shown in Georgia when against the wishes og the local population in Kutasi, Saakshvili order the Glory Monument to be destroyed on December the 19th 2009.

That act of vulgar and disrespect ful bararanism has not been mentioned in the Western media. There is nothing in the Economist article about it as it does not fit in with the simplistic and rigid propaganda mould of seamless and sinister Kremlin evil that you try to propagate.

On the death of Boris Yeltson in 2007, there was no mention in the Daily Mail piece you wrote of the neoliberal shock therapy that killed millions of Russians, as their lives are clearly expendable in the cause of "progress".

The fact that some have tried to vandalise or blow up the Soviet monument in Vienna is not subjected to any moral approbation in this writing, though it is an act both vulgar and uncecoming of honiourable people.

The British Empire's occupation of Iraq in after the Great War might have been unpopular and yet their Commonwealth graves have not been ripped down and used as paving flags. That would be barbaric too, no matter how umpopulart British and US involvement is.

There is a basic moral principle that you are singulary failing to uphold: destroying monuments to the dead, war graves or monuments is both disrepectful and uncivilised.

Regards Karl Naylor

( PS you book is on its way to me )

Undergroundman said...

The double standards evinced in this appriach are sickeningly hypocritical and of precisely the kind condemned by Norman Davies in his Europe at War 1939-1945 where he condemns double standards in forthtight terms.

Davies pro-Polish sentiments and exposure of the way Stalinist crimes were covered up and remained unmentionable for strategic reasons until the end of Communism is now reason now to trash the contribution of Red Army soldiers, the "Ivans".

The moral failure inherent in not denouncing Saakashvili's blowing up of the Glory Monument is part of the propaganda reading of the conflict between Georgia and Russia as part of "the New Cold War".

RTime and time again the cliches and unuanced platitudes and insinuations in your work has practical effects: the notion of Russians as a semi-Asiatic barbarian horde capable of civilisation only if the West regains control bt reinstalling liberal instead of Putin.

Yet the hypocrisy is shown in the fact that whilst you have berated those who have consituted a motley array of political positions in supporting Putin, as in the Guardian piece on August 2008, you remain silent on the even more bizarre alliance of oppositionists to Putin called The Other Russia.

"Why has an odd alliance of leftwingers, Tories and bankers come out for this fascist kleptocracy?"

Putin is not a Fascist, nor a Stalinist and such propaganda is not in the tradition of Orwell fighting the good fight but is Orwellian in the nagative sense that world has accrued, not least in your doublethink.

The Other Russia has a Fascist called Edward Limanov who supports using Serb like nationalism in order to steal Putin's milder nationalism and concentrating on state building.

The Union of Rightists and Yabloko have little support because of the IMF imposed "shock therapy" which impoverished millions and, but for the existence of communal help and vegetable plots would have led to mass hunger.

Shick therapy intensified the collapse of the post-Soviet economy even if it did not cause it@ you total evasion and omission of Western complicity in these reforms is disingenuous.

The rationalisation has to be, therefore, not that the "reforms" were just badly conceived and funamentally misjudged but that defects in the Russian character are to blame, whether the essential nature of Russian autocracy, the alcoholism or, as Jeffrey Sachs opined, the tendency for the Soviet citizen to eat too many fry up.

Until the West apologises for the democidal impact of the IMF reforms, there is zero chance of Russia being won back to ally more with the West. The Economist, which represents big oil and financial interests in Russia, require hypocrisy be written and Neo-Soviet tropes be peddled as a pretext for the US to coalition the best money democracy can but.

Yet Russiand do not want either the oligarchs back nor the kind of people the NED keep foising as oppositionists. As Anatol Lieven, a far more knowledgeable and able commentator, has written the Limousine Liberals of Yabloko are setting back political liberalism in Russia.

This is of little importance to you or the neoliberals who are interested in their shares and gaining control over the oil just as they were when egging on the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

No matter what spin of Enlightened self interest is put on it, this pseudo-liberalism is a fig leag for naked and rapacious commericial interest. The real condition of the ordinary Russian is a matter of total indifference to the oppositionists.

The sooner that is admitted, the better real progress and diplomatic relations with Russia can be forged.

As New Cold War rhetoric, no matter the sour grapes that underlies it and the bitterness at having lost out when Putin reasserted control over the economy he, and not Western investors, will be the foundation for a new hybrid of authoritatian market capitalism.

Unknown said...

"The way in which Soviet War memorials do tend to be overtly propagandistic should not detract from the fact that many ordinary Red Army soldiers died bravely in liberating Central-Eastern Europe."

This is where you go wrong, and this point forward, your post can be considered nothing but russophile imperialist crap.

The Red Army soldiers didn't "liberate" anything. They merely shifted parts of Europe from the Nazi Empire to the Soviet Empire. You have to be a master of close-minded tunnel vision to not to see this. The Soviet Empire is responsible for more deaths than the Nazi one. So much for "liberating".

Undergroundman said...

So Auschwitz was not "liberated" by the Red Army then. Obviously, "liberation" did not mean that much to the Poles or the AK who were betrayed by the Allies.

It's a hideous paradox but the Soviet Union did defeat Nazi Gernany. Norman Davies affirms that in Europe at War.

Red Army soldiers died in what they believed was thge liberation of Eatern Europe from NAZI hegemony: theres no need to trash their contribution.

That's different from lauding the leaders like Stalin and the NKVD whom many ordinary soldiers disliked for their constant policing anf monitoring for ideological orthodoxy.

That is argued by most scholars who do not rationalise or eulogise the Soviet dictatorship or the imposition of Communism on "Eastern Europe".I do not dispute it either.

If you want to strike a pose of equivalence to relativise the crimes of Nazism then that's what many in the Baltics are doing and in Georgia

Russia is not the Soviet Union.

You didn't read the rest of the post because a bigoted mind will always fulminate with itself when confronted with difficult facts rather than reason and argue.

Hence you simply projected "tunnel vision" as an insulting label as a means of evading engaging with what I said, revealing more your limited intellect and not so much mine.

Regards, KN

Johnny S. Camerus said...

If you distance the Soviet soldiers from the regime they fought for, are you not compelled to do the same for Nazi soldiers? After all, they fought bravely and suffered terribly as well. A memorial for the unknown Nazi soldier in the center of Volgograd, anyone? Or maybe Paris?

Undergroundman said...

The obvious difference is that the Wehrmacht fought the Nazi War effort whilst some Wehrmacht were Nazis not all, or even a majority, were.

The same applies to the Soviet Army who were soldiers in an army within a multination imperium attacked by Nazi Germany.

Soldiers are obliged to follow orders even in democratic societies such as Britain's army who are not all Blairites

Some could argue the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 means that all British soldiers are illegal occupants.

This their graves from the 1920s when we created Iraq should be desecrated. That would be barbaric and in the spirit of Saakashvili.

Having said this, I was too "intemperate" in my polemics against Mr Lucas and though I stand by my views just two points.

1) Just because I point out the limitations of the "oppositionists" in The Other Russia does not mean I support Putin.

2) The notion of a "New Cold War" is inintentionally potentially a phrase that could be used to make Nazism and the Soviet Union equivalent.

3) The twin totalitarian horrors of both regimes are comparable and have similarities but they were not the same, as Overy points out in his The Dictators

4) To imply so gives ammo to those "revisionists" who want to rationalise wartime collaboration with the Waffen SS as "freedom fighters".

5) I am not "soft" on Putin nor an "Ostalgist". The USSR was a hoffiric regime built of terror and the subjugation of other nations

6) I greatly respect the scholarship of Anne Applebaum and Norman Davies. I have called on them to support my conservation projects in Krakow.

Bea said...

If both the enslavement of Nazis and the enslavement of the Soviets was awful to many people of the Baltic states and meant torture and absurd rather than freedom to them, why are you objecting their right to hate seeing the monument to the Soviets who brought the torture and absurd and hate to see certain commie sympathisers coming to show their disdain to the present Baltic states by this monument? Hello, it was the same monument depicting the same army who brought similar totalitarianism, torture and absurd instead of freedom they screamed they were bringing. Why is removing the monument and the graves from the city center (Soviet manners only) to the graveyard (Baltic manners) called desacrating of graves and prasing of Nazism? You don't have the answer to this. The Balts may show their disgust to Nazism in their own ways, why do they have to keep some Soviet monument with the Soviet lie that Soviets brought freedom or liberated (generally) the Baltic countries? Why keep the militaristic monument which reminds the Soviet torture and absurd, plus provokes expressions of a Russian hate to Estonia and love to Putin's Russia?

Bea said...

The Estonian nor even the Georgian reaction to the Soviet-built monuments gives no indications of the view of the Balts or Georgians at Nazism and says nothing about wishes to conceal anything/has no connections to the use of the Nazi invasion for the fight of the Balts against Soviets and for the eventual real freedom of the Baltic states. Finns went with Nazis against the Soviets as well, you angry Russian in Poland. ;) Balts, atr least part of them, really intended to fight for the real freedom of their countries, not for Nazism itself, just like Finns. But they were much less successful, because they had worse governments which decided to simply give up and even misinform them for long, and they were first assaulted in the summer, not in winter.