"Current events would seem to suggest that there is no consensus on what “our values” might actually be. Society is more divided than at any time I can recall in my lifetime"
Citizens of mature, liberal democracies accept that some things done in our name by those who guard us take place in the grey margins of the law. If the ultimate objective is to keep us safe then we may be prepared to turn a blind eye. But after 9/11, America’s security agencies embarked on the “war on terror” which crossed that line, committing acts of torture including waterboardings and interrogation beatings which shocked the world.
Keith Lowe’s book could not be more timely. Although it is concerned exclusively with monuments to the Second World War, it acknowledges the “wave of iconoclasm” that in recent years has led to demands for the removal of statues of Confederate generals and Victorian imperialists, and asks searching questions about the significance and meaning of such memorials. He wrote the book before the recent toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and the renewal of calls for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oxford, but some of his observations seem uncannily prescient.
“Monuments reflect our values,” Lowe writes, “and every society deceives itself that its values are eternal.” I think this is true, but current events would seem to suggest that there is no consensus on what “our values” might actually be. Society is more divided than at any time I can recall in my lifetime, and this is one of the reasons why so many people feel nostalgic about World War Two, the supreme moment in our history when the country was united in a common cause. Occasional mutterings about heavy drinking aside, it always used to be the case that Winston Churchill was regarded as the embodiment of British resistance and the bulldog spirit, but try telling that to the protestors daubing slogans on his statue, or the trolls lambasting him on social media. Lowe identifies a paradox: “our heroes, who in our minds seem so strong and indestructible, are actually the most vulnerable figures in the historical pantheon. It does not take much to knock them from their pedestals.”
He is sharp on cultural and national differences in perceptions of the war. In the United States, for example, memorials are a straightforward celebration of American heroism. The US Marine monument depicting the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima is probably the most famous example, a salute to heroes that places the Stars and Stripes firmly at the centre. British monuments are generally more low-key, and Lowe’s characterisation of the aircrew in sculptor Philip Jackson’s Bomber Command tribute in Green Park as “a group of heroes who appear to have nothing heroic to do” strikes me as both apt and eminently British.
The Bomber Command memorial was only unveiled in 2012, following a campaign to right a perceived injustice. The contribution of veterans of the air campaign had been brushed aside in the immediate aftermath of the war because of disquiet over the “terror bombing” of German cities. This was less of an issue on the other side of the Atlantic, where civilians had never been bombed, and the story of the war was essentially cast in Hollywood terms as a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys in which the good guys won.
A similar narrative was promoted in the Soviet Union. The most famous Soviet war monument, in the city formerly known as Stalingrad, has as its centrepiece a truly vast 280-foot statue of “Mother Russia” holding aloft a giant sword and calling on her children to defend her. It is an heroic image, and the sacrifices of the Russian people cannot be overstated, but the Soviet projection of its military as “liberators” provoked hollow laughter in eastern Europe. In Warsaw there used to stand a memorial depicting Soviet and Polish soldiers mourning the dead. It was meant to celebrate their brotherhood in arms, but ordinary Poles referred dismissively to the four mourners as “the four sleepers” and were even more disparaging about other monuments, giving them labels such as “the looters’ memorial” and “the tomb of the unknown rapist”.
Countries that ended up on the losing side or suffered occupation inevitably view the war in different ways. One of the more powerful themes running through the book is martyrdom. For the Japanese, as Lowe observes, the desire to remember co-existed with the urge to forget, but that’s a luxury their neighbours aren’t willing to grant them. The towering statue of a weeping mother clasping her dead child at the museum commemorating the Rape of Nanking acts as a rebuke to Japan, as does the statue representing the Korean “comfort women” sexually abused by Japanese soldiers. This statue was deliberately situated on the street opposite the Japanese embassy in Seoul, an act condemned as a provocation in Tokyo.
As the title of Lowe’s book implies, we are all conditioned and constrained by the past, but what’s the alternative? To forget the past may condemn us to relive it. It’s true that monuments sometimes outlive their usefulness, but “they speak eloquently about the values of our ancestors, both good and bad . . . To tear all this down for the sake of contemporary politics seems like a great shame”. That is a sentiment with which I find it hard to disagree.
Prisoners of History:
What Monuments to the Second World War
Tell Us about our History and Ourselves
By Keith Lowe
William Collins, 320pp, £20