This new book is well timed, although it focuses on symbols of the Second World War—from China to Russia, the Philippines, Lithuania, Hungary and Japan. These are the monuments, sculptures, parks and tombs built to mark “a titanic struggle between good and evil” between 1939 and 1945.
Lowe’s focus runs deeper than mere aesthetics. While the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has gained traction and Poland removed its monuments to Communism, he notes that, globally, few wartime statues have been toppled. Curious, when “British and French leaders were just as much champions of colonialism… American leaders still presided over a racially segregated army; and men from all the Allied forces engaged in acts that would now be considered war crimes.”
The period is steeped in “cosy memories” that risk becoming “a trap, from which escape seems impossible.” The 1991 Katyn memorial in New Jersey is unflinching in its depiction of the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviets—its 34ft of bronze shows a soldier speared through the back with a bayonet. It represents not only the atrocity of the executions but the sense of betrayal felt later by Poland after its army had fought for the Allies but received little subsequent aid from them. A recent bid to move the statue ignited a battle between local councillors and Polish Americans.
By contrast, the “Four Sleepers” in Warsaw, erected in 1945 to mark the “new era of friendship” between Poland and the Soviet Union was removed permanently 70 years later, branded “a monument to shame.” America’s tendency is to cast its heroes as “triumphant,” while Europe’s is to portray melancholy victims. It is this “war over memory” that pervades a prescient work on commemoration that questions who we choose to celebrate and why.
Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War tell us about our History and Ourselves by Keith Lowe (William Collins, £16.99)