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.