How war monuments keep history lessons alive

“Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World II Tell us About our History and Ourselves” by Keith Lowe; William Collins (302 pages, $29.99)


A pedestal is a risky place to take a stand.

In America, official tributes to leaders from Robert E. Lee to Abraham Lincoln have been destroyed or defaced. In Europe, memorials to Communist dictators have been torn down. In the Middle East, even massive images of ancient gods have been blown up.

Keith Lowe’s “Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World II Tell us About our History and Ourselves” examines how different countries’ statues and museums about the war resonate today. It’s a study in how memorials and memories don’t always match.

What time proves is that while statues never change, what’s considered heroic does. And this varies from country to country.

America’s view of World War II, naturally, differs from other nations. When the war changed on Dec. 7, 1941, with the bombing of the USS Arizona, it was our military not our civilians who were attacked. That experience shows in our statues.

“America makes monuments to its heroes,” Lowe writes. “Europe much more often makes monuments to its victims. American monuments are triumphant; European ones are melancholy. American monuments are idealistic, while European ones – occasionally, at least – are more likely to be morally ambiguous.”

Fittingly, America’s most famous World War II monument – the Arlington, Va. statue commemorating the flag-raising on Iwo Jima – isn’t named after the war. The Marine Corps Memorial isn’t about a battle, but the people who fought it and those who came before them. It puts all their pride and sacrifice into a simple symbol: The Stars and Stripes.

Other nations’ monuments are more complicated.

The most important World War II site in London is the Bomber Command Memorial, dedicated to the pilots who brought the war to Germany. It’s also the most controversial, like the missions it commemorates.

Although the Royal Air Force initially limited its raids to military targets, it later bombed civilian populations, vowing to destroy “what is left of German morale.” Although he once praised the RAF, after the firebombing of Dresden incinerated 25,000 people, Winston Churchill raged against its “acts of terror and wanton destruction.” The about-face left some feeling betrayed.

“Most people were very pleased with Bomber Command during the war and until it was virtually won,” the Command’s official historian later dryly noted. “Then they turned around and said it wasn’t a very nice way to wage war.”

Promoted by Britain’s right-wing newspapers, funded by private donations, the Bomber Command Memorial predictably emerged at its 2012 unveiling as not just a military symbol, but a political one. Its columned design was Victorian, recalling Britain’s lost days of empire. Its figures were white and their posture resigned. It not only saluted a war that was won but mourned a past that was gone. And its statues seemed to know it.

“They are a group of heroes who appear to have nothing heroic to do,” Lowe writes. “They merely stand there, gazing across London’s Green Park, waiting stoically to see what new disappointments might be looming on the horizon.”

The more complicated the country’s role in World War II, the more conflicted its memorials can grow.

Initially, Italy’s government stood with Hitler. Once the Allies landed, though, chaos reigned, with an anti-fascist government taking over in the South and dictator Benito Mussolini moving his pro-Nazi regime to the North.

Today, the country’s memories are similarly split. In Bologna, the Shrine to the Fallen salutes the resistance’s left-wing martyrs, with portraits of some 2,000 murdered heroes lining a medieval plaza. In tiny Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace, right-wing pilgrims regularly trek to his family’s crypt, approaching the unofficial memorial waving fascist banners and sporting black shirts in honor of his brutal militia.

“This place is our Bethlehem,” one supporter explained.

Some government memorials are outright propaganda, like the Monument to Brotherhood in Arms, erected in Warsaw in 1945. Designed by a Russian officer, it floridly announced “Glory to the heroes of the Soviet Army,” praising those “who gave their lives for the freedom and independence of the Polish Nation.” There was no mention of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland, of course. Or its massacre of Polish officers in 1940. Or its decades-long denial of that nation’s true independence.

The pro-USSR statue was finally taken down in 2011. It is slated to eventually be displayed in a museum, with other dusty artifacts.

Perhaps because the Soviet Union wanted to forget its early, friendly relationship with the Nazis, its memorials were particularly good at rewriting history and emphasizing its later suffering. In modern Russia’s Volgograd – Stalingrad, during the war – there are dozens of monuments to the nation and its dead. The largest statue, a depiction of Mother Russia waving a sword, is nearly twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.

Unveiled in 1967, she not only paid tribute to the country’s stoic sacrifice but announced its birth as a world leader. Today, in a shrunken nation, her defiance seems less convincing.

“We used to be a superpower,” as one Russian later explained. “Now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.”

Far more impressive than Russia’s massive memorials are the silent, haunting remains of a town. On June 10, 1944, a unit of the brutal Waffen-SS invaded the tiny town of Oradour-sur-Glane. The officer in charge accused the residents of hiding guns. When no one confessed, he demanded the mayor select hostages from among the townspeople. The mayor refused, offering himself and his sons instead.

Enraged, the SS officer ordered his men to round up the entire village. The Nazis quickly machine-gunned 642 men, women, and children. Their homes, schools, and church were set on fire. Then the Germans marched out. Only five young men, hiding under a mound of corpses, survived to escape and tell the tale.

The ruins have not been touched since. A literal ghost town, it stands in mute witness to war’s horror.

It’s painful proof that sometimes the most affecting memorials are the simplest. In downtown Seoul, South Korea, there’s an unassuming bronze monument known as the Peace Statue. It depicts a young girl sitting on a bench, a small bird perching on her shoulder. The girl stares straight ahead, fists clenched in her lap.

The statue is unremarkable, but the context, and its placement, is devastating. The Peace Statue is dedicated to the comfort women, the tens of thousands of Korean females who were forced into military brothels, as sex slaves for the Japanese army. And what this statue is staring at, so intently, so unforgivingly, is the Japanese Embassy across the street.

The provocation is deliberate, and many would say, necessary. Although Germany has confronted its war crimes, Japan avoids the subject. Its history books downplay or deny the nation’s atrocities. Japan’s significant memorials either salute its own victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or, at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, honor its military – war criminals included. Japan chooses to remember only some of its past.

But memory is one of the things that memorials, even detested ones, serve. That is something Lowe hopes modern iconoclasts remember.

“Tearing monuments down does not solve our history,” he writes. “It simply drives that history underground. While a movement still stands, it will always need to be confronted, discussed. In this way, our monuments hold us to account.”