Memory

By Dr Toby Thacker

School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University

We all have memories. We remember, if only vaguely, events and emotions from our childhood, from our adolescence, and from earlier periods of our lives. We also share in wider collective memories of our shared history. Typically these collective memories are of events, people, or eras which we did not have any direct experience of. They may be collective memories of relatively recent events, such as the Second World War, or of distant epochs from the dawn of civilization. In shaping and giving focus to these collective memories, stone monuments play a prominent part. These may be stone buildings, temples, statues, obelisks, or fortifications which have endured through centuries, and still exist as historic sites. They may be stone memorials, specifically created to prompt remembrance of particular events, such as battles, or even particular people. Very often these stone monuments act as points of focus for our collective memory, where groups of people gather, and join together to link a sense of who they are today with a particular understanding of the past. These may be tourists or visitors, who share a sense of wonder and reverence for the achievements of vanished civilizations, or they may be national, ethnic, religious, or political groups who use a particular monument to cement a feeling of identity which is linked to a vision of history. Many stone monuments are not places of controversy today, and large groups of visitors from different places and backgrounds mingle there. The huge, impressive, and still mysterious stone pyramids and cities of the Mayas in Mexico are one such example (Fig. 1). But others are in areas which today are war zones, or where political or religious ideas are hotly contested. In these situations, stone monuments are often in the front line of contemporary conflict.

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Figure 1: The Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, in Mexico, a UNESCO world heritage site which is visited by thousands of people from all over the world. Only recently have visitors been prevented from climbing it to prevent damage to the structure.

Stone has been chosen for millennia by builders because of its enduring nature. The ancient Egyptians thought that granite, which weathered so incredibly well, was a gift from the gods, and reserved its use for the most sacred statues and parts of temples. For centuries stone has been used for gravestones and for memorials, as well as for castles and fortifications, because of its strength and durability. More recently concrete has offered an alternative which similarly seems to promise permanence. The builders of memorials have used stone and concrete to give material substance and longevity to ideas which are themselves fleeting and immaterial. One thinks of the ‘Stone of Remembrance’ which is found in British First World War cemeteries, a huge block of limestone inscribed with Rudyard Kipling’s words: ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’ (Fig. 2), or of the huge slab of granite which stands now at the site of the gas chambers in the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, inscribed with the words ‘Never Again’ in different languages (Fig. 3).

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Figure 2: The Stone of Remembrance at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium proclaims the desire to preserve the immortality of those buried there.

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Figure 3: The huge granite obelisk on the site of the now demolished gas chambers at the Treblinka concentration camp, with a sign urging visitors to remembrance in order that similar events should never happen again.

But even stone and concrete may not last for ever. Around the world today, and particularly in war zones and areas of political instability, monuments face different threats, ranging from deliberate destruction, through to the consequences of war damage, and to simple erosion. In parts of Syria and Iraq, in the self-styled Islamic Caliphate, as in Afghanistan in 2007, we have witnessed ancient buildings and statues being demolished and dismantled with pneumatic drills and sledgehammers. These stone artefacts, thousands of years old, which are seen by the international community as part of the common heritage of humankind, appear to members of the Islamic State as false idols, as testaments to idolatry which must be destroyed. Most recently the UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra, with its extensive Roman ruins, has fallen under the control of ISIS, and is now at risk. Across Eastern Europe, and in the former Soviet Union, many statues and monuments from the era of Communist rule were deliberately demolished, or taken away from highly visible public sites to be dumped away from view (Fig. 4). Large buildings and monuments can only be destroyed with heavy machinery, or using large numbers of people, but considerable damage may be inflicted upon monuments by smaller groups without these resources. In parts of Eastern Germany, monuments commemorating the suffering of Jews under Nazism have been damaged or defaced. Simply spray painting slogans on a monument can change the message it embodies from one of sympathy for persecuted Jewish people to one of hatred and racial intolerance (Fig. 5).

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Figure 4: A statue of Lenin in the centre of Kiev being destroyed recently by Ukrainian nationalists.

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Figure 5: This memorial to the Jewish victims of the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ in Stralsund in Germany in November 1938 was recently defaced by neo-Nazi protesters. Traces of the spray paint used are clearly visible.

Across Europe, many monuments still preserve the physical scars of war damage. In many cases, buildings which were partially damaged by bombs, by shellfire, or by bullets have been preserved as functioning structures, and in others, more seriously damaged buildings have been kept as memorials, to serve as a legacy off conflict. But bullets and shrapnel can have longer term impact on the integrity of even large stone structures, presenting conservation problems to later generations. A striking example is to be found in northern Poland, in the ruins of Hitler’s wartime headquarters, the so-called Wolf’s Lair, or Wolfsschanze. Here, in a forested region of what was then East Prussia, Hitler had built a huge complex of concrete bunkers from which he could direct his planned invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. At the start of the campaign, he moved in with his supporting staff, and there he stayed until 1944. The complex was extended to include more and more bunkers and barracks, and even a small airfield. The first bunkers were steadily enlarged, and fearing allied air attack, Hitler ordered that ever heavier layers of concrete were added to them. In fact, the Allies never knew about the complex, and it was only when the Red Army approached in November 1944 that Hitler was forced to leave. He ordered that the whole complex should be destroyed rather than surrendered to the Soviets, and so in December 1944 German Army engineers set about demolishing the bunkers with high explosives. There were too many bunkers, and in many cases the structures were simply too large and too heavy for them all to be destroyed in a short time. Some of the smaller structures were left more or less intact, and most of the larger ones were only damaged, their huge walls cracked, and their massive roofs partially collapsed. Now, 70 years later, the structures are still there, the huge slabs of concrete sitting at crazy angles, covered with moss and lichens, with trees and saplings, many of them now quite large, growing around and through them. One bunker, which used to serve as a guesthouse for visiting officers, is still preserved as a hotel for the occasional visitors to the site. The rest are simply disappearing into the forest (Figures 6, 7, and 8).

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Figure 6: One of dozens of semi-demolished bunkers at the Wolfsschanze , now in Eastern Poland. This huge slab of concrete appears to be largely supported by trees.

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Figure 7: The roof of this bunker at the Wolfsschanze appears to have settled onto the collapsed interior of the building.                

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Figure 8: The smaller and less well-protected bunkers at the Wolfsschanze received less attention from the demolition crews in 1944. This one is only partially damaged.

In other cases, war damaged buildings in city centres have been left as ruins, and preserved as memorials. Temple Church in Bristol was severely damaged by German bombing on the night of 24/25 November 1940. It is now owned by English Heritage, and the ruins have been stabilised to make them safe for public viewing (Fig. 9). In the centre of Berlin, the jagged remains of the Kaiser-Gedächtnis Kirche stand surrounded by multi-lane roadways and skyscrapers. The building was largely destroyed by British bombers in November 1943, but has been deliberately left as a memorial (Fig. 10).

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Figure 9: War damaged walls of the Temple Church in Bristol.

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Figure 10: The Kaiser-Gedächtnis Kirche in Berlin

There are even examples of First World War monuments which suffered war damage in the Second World War. The war memorial in the centre of Arras, in northern France, shows clear evidence of shell and shrapnel damage on its base (Fig. 11).

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Figure11: Damage from shrapnel is clearly visible on this memorial in Arras in France       

All stone monuments suffer to a greater or lesser extent from weathering. The huge megaliths at Stonehenge may appear immune to the effects of wind and rain, but structures made of concrete in the twentieth century are less durable. In the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars, communities seeking to remember their dead, or to commemorate heroic figures often turned to concrete as a relatively cheap alternative to imported stone for their memorials. In France, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed between 1914 and 1918 were given a uniform headstone in the shape of a cross, made of aggregate stone on a framework of steel. Today, in war cemeteries on the sites of the great battles of the First World War, many of these crosses can be seen visibly deteriorating, with the stone flaking off, and in some cases leaving the wire framework exposed. In some cemeteries, damaged crosses which have fallen over have simply been picked up and stacked to one side (Fig. 12). What is to be done if the cherished memory of these soldiers is not to be tarnished, and eventually to disappear?

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Figure 12: The deterioration of these headstones in a French military cemetery at Flirey, near Verdun, is apparent. When this author visited, many other headstones had already broken off at ground level, and were simply stacked around the edges of the site.

Concrete was also attractive to communities in Eastern Europe after 1945 who sought to commemorate their liberation from Nazi oppression. Not only was concrete relatively cheap and easily available, but its semi-industrial appearance tied in well with the aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism which was championed by Soviet Communism. Across Eastern Europe, memorials in concrete were erected commemorating the heroic achievements of the Red Army in its fight against Fascism. In the central square of the small town of Wlodowa, which stands today at the Eastern edge of the European Union, close to the Polish frontier with Belarus, a concrete memorial was erected which commemorated, not the Red Army, but the efforts of Polish soldiers in the liberation struggle. It is a characteristic piece of Soviet Socialist Realism, incorporating the idealised figures of soldiers and workers who appear to emerge from a rugged block of concrete. The whole monument is inscribed with patriotic Polish poetry, and with verses from the 1st Polish Army Corps song. It was an uncompromising and proud statement of political and national pride when built. But when I came across it in 2007, small pieces of concrete were falling from it on every side, and whole chunks lay on the ground around it. Where the worker in the monument extends his hand bearing the tools of his trade, the concrete had fallen away to leave the steel frame of the monument exposed. The whole effect was one of dilapidation and decay (Fig. 13). A monument like this poses a particular problem. It commemorates the heroic deeds of Polish soldiers, which will still be popular and broadly supported in Poland, but the whole style of the memorial is unmistakeably Soviet, and it inevitably recalls an era of Soviet domination which most Poles want to turn away from now. Will the money be found to repair and to maintain a monument like this in a relatively poor community?

This brief survey raises a number of issues. Clearly monuments and memorials from the past are not value free. Even monuments which are thousands of years old may be the focus of bitter conflicts about identity today. The preservation or the repair of monuments and memorials raises difficult questions: what narratives and views of history are embodied in different monuments? Who should decide which monuments are preserved, and which are destroyed? Who should pay for the maintenance of monuments which are suffering from war damage, from vandalism, or from erosion?  And who gets to answer these questions?

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Figure 13: A monument to Polish soldiers in the town square at Wlodowa, in Eastern Poland. The steel grid underpinning the structure is clearly exposed at the right of the statue. 

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