Life & Culture

Should we concrete over these ‘dark tourist’ monuments?


I was born in London the year before the War broke out, and learned as a child that I was living through ''history''. My father helped put out the fires as the city was ''blitzkrieged'' and was later an anti-aircraft gunner on the coast. My mother took me into the garden to watch our chaps flying out on their bombing missions and then, in the evening, returning with a sad gap or two in their formations. I sat next to her as she listened to the news on the wireless, rejoiced when we heard of the death of Hitler and danced around the street bonfire on what I learned to call ''VE Night''. As Churchill growled his uplifting messages over "the BBC", everyone knew that history was being made.

Well over 70 years later, I still love history. I have lectured and written books about it and produced countless BBC programmes on aspects of history. And right now I am organising and chairing a monthly series of public seminars at London University's Institute of Historical Research at which top historians debate the ways we use and abuse the past.

History seems more popular than ever. On TV, programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? or those presented by Lucy Worsley or Simon Schama draw large audiences, as do costume dramas such as Wolf Hall or Downton Abbey. Or consider the widespread interest aroused by the rediscovery and re-burial of the bones of King Richard III. Despite the general doom and gloom afflicting the publishing industry, books revealing new secrets about the Tudors or beautiful doomed duchesses seem to leap off the shelves while recent best-sellers have included tie-ins with a multiplicity of highly touted historical anniversaries: Magna Carta, Agincourt, Waterloo and the First World War. Watch out for next year's 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings!

At the same time, we live in a culture that can be markedly lacking in historical awareness, an aggressively here-and-now world in which people often seem almost oblivious towards the links between what is going on today and what has preceded it. Polls reveal that (for example) only one British teenager in six knows that the Duke of Wellington led the British army in the Battle of Waterloo and only one in 10 can name a 19th-century British Prime Minister such as Disraeli or Gladstone.

Nor is it just a question of people being ignorant of the ''facts''. Serious current issues are frequently discussed with little regard for the back-story: immigration policy, for example, or Russian involvement in Ukraine, the continuing violence in the Middle East or whether Britain should be in or out of the EU. When people do turn to a version of history or a pivotal personality or event in the past when addressing contemporary concerns, it is often highly selective history that is sought and cited: a sound-bite grabbed from the past to help bolster present-day attitudes. Think of how one foreign ''hate'' figure after another has been lazily compared with Hitler, or the way advocates of overseas military intervention have routinely invoked questionable analogies with 1939.

Everyone, I think, agrees on the importance of retaining some awareness of our history. But what - and how? It is partly a question of our physical heritage. London's St Pancras station nearly came under the hammer (like the Euston arch) half-a-century ago, but no one would dream of demolishing it in its renovated state today. And we are rightly appalled at the wanton destruction of historic sites in cities like Palmyra. But what exactly should be conserved and what scrapped? Why renovate this crumbling old edifice but not that? You could argue that it is false to history to restore a derelict building back to its ''original'' state. If St Paul's Cathedral had been badly hit during the war (which it nearly was), we would probably have replaced it with something ''modern'' like Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral or Spence's Coventry rather than erected a replica of Wren's masterpiece on the old site. Yet who can deny the magnificence of Dresden's 18th-century Frauenkirche, painstakingly rebuilt (partly with British help) exactly as it was when destroyed by Allied bombing in February 1945? When Venice's opera house, La Fenice, was burned down, all agreed it should be rebuilt com'era, dov'era: as it was, where it was. But should ''historical authenticity'' always be a primary concern?

If so, one might argue that the great tower in Pisa should be engineered back to its intended perpendicular position - or allowed to fall – rather than remain permanently, artificially, propped up at an angle.

History itself, or what we regard as ''history'', keeps shifting with the passage of time. When I was a student, the emphasis was on the great political and military transitions of the past and those who led them, since when it has come to include those lower down the social order and, more recently, people previously marginalised on account of their race or sex (or sexuality).

As ever, the past continues to be perceived through the changing perspectives of the present. Thus, the Japanese have been re-writing school history books (particularly the sections about the Second World War), and they're doing something of the same in Ukraine and Poland as they attempt to distance themselves from Russia. Did the British empire help educate millions around the world into the benefits of democracy or was it, as many have increasingly insisted, primarily a form of ruthless (and racist) commercial exploitation? How do you currently regard - and label - the mass murder of Armenian Turks a century ago? In Israel, intellectual life has been much exercised in recent years over new interpretations of the evacuation (expulsion?) of Arabs from Palestine in 1947/8.

If these examples are contentious, consider the questions raised by a site such as Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau. Auschwitz is a monument, a museum and a memorial as well as being a ''site of historical interest''. As a museum, it has to cater for large visitor numbers and this means providing such mundane facilities as car and coach parks, conference rooms, cafeterias, toilets and retail outlets.

Many come to Auschwitz in a spirit of pilgrimage, perhaps to mourn the loss of parents or grandparents and to seek out information about their fate. But the neat streets and buildings they see on entering the camp, and the carefully displayed and labelled exhibits, can create an almost sanitised view of what once went on here. Buildings and barbed wire have, after all, required periodic renovation after exposure to decades of freezing Polish winters and, to that extent, are no longer ''original''. Some visitors do not at first realise that the mass murder occurred not here but a couple of kilometres away at Birkenau: a huge, empty, often windswept open-air site now containing little more than a few huts and a railway line - in its sheer bleakness, all the more appalling to anyone with an ounce of imagination. All this raises profound questions about the relationship between present and past. Is there an element of conflict between the maintenance of Auschwitz-Birkenau as monument, museum and memorial? And is there (as some have suggested) a touch of almost ghoulish voyeurism in the growing popularity of what has come to be known as ''dark tourism"?

If so, might there be a case, if only out of deference to the dead, for leaving the site to disappear with the passage of time? Or even build over it, perhaps creating a memorial park in the hope of creating a better world thereafter? I don't pretend to have easy answers to disturbing questions such as these and have been shaken to the core when contemplating them during visits to Auschwitz over the years, deeply conscious that the War and Holocaust occurred during my own lifetime, not so long ago. I pray that Auschwitz never becomes just another stop on the tourist trail.

But time is passing. When I began work on my study of the cultural impact of the ''Hitler Emigrés'' some 20years ago, many of the great figures of the time - the refugee writers, musicians, architects, film-makers, historians, publishers and the rest - were still alive and prepared to let me record lengthy interviews with them (these are now lodged in the archives of the Imperial War Museum).

Today, most of those I interviewed have passed on as the entire story moves out of "memory" and gradually becomes "history". Most scholars studying the War nowadays have no personal memory of it; rather, it is coming to be regarded as a subject requiring cool and balanced research, like the study of, say, the Napoleonic wars.

This is right and proper and not to be demeaned. I would not argue that everyone has to become a highly sophisticated quasi-professional historian. But a proper awareness of the passage of history is surely among the more important skills any responsible person should strive to acquire.

For history is a blanket term for all that has preceded - and can therefore help to throw light on - everything in the present. Nothing comes of nothing (as King Lear almost said), and one cannot understand the world of today without knowing what led things to be the way they are. I am reminded of the wise words of the great French Jewish historian Marc Bloch (who was executed by the Nazis in 1944):

"Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past."

Daniel Snowman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. His book 'Historians' will be published in paperback in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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