Book Review on Monuments and Memory

Last weekend was Memorial Day, and I published this book review on memory and monuments in the Wall Street Journal. I repost it here.


The Use and Abuse of the Past

It’s become a truism that monuments speak of the time in which they were built as well as the time that they commemorate. And that what we hear them saying changes. At moments of political upheaval, the way we choose to remember—even what we remember—can be dramatically reconfigured. Here in the U.S., not a few statues are being removed from places of honor. And around the world, we’ve seen monuments to paragons of former regimes be displaced or reduced to rubble. Some applaud this iconoclasm as a reckoning with legacies of oppression; others complain of the past being canceled based upon present-day values.

Monuments to World War II, though, have been remarkably stable. So far. Even as our understanding of that terrible war has grown more complex and nuanced, cartoonish monsters have remained lodged in our historical imagination, as have the heroic efforts made to defeat them. In the U.S., where most heroes of earlier times have been cut down to size, the image of “The Greatest Generation” still stands tall in the minds of many. TheBritish historian Keith Lowe knows all about patriotic respect for what Winston Churchill called “their finest hour.” He also knows about the hours that followed. In his books“Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943” (2007) and “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” (2012), he focused on the massive destructiveness of the conflict. Now, in “Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World War II Tell UsAbout Our History and Ourselves,” he looks at the ways in which a diverse set of countries have memorialized that bloody conflict, which set the stage for the world in which we still live.


By Keith Lowe St. Martin’s, 346 pages, $29.99

Mr. Lowe has visited monuments around the world—from Auschwitz to Volgograd to Jersey City. No art historian, he has little to say about architectural details or subtle shifts in symbolism. Nor does his book, unlike the brilliant work of James E. Young, explore the intricate ways in which public traumas are processed. What “Prisoners of History” does do—and does well—is explain why groups in each country built the monuments in the first place and how changes in politics and international relations affected interactions with them afterward.

In painting a powerful picture of the brutal Japanese invasion of China, Mr. Lowe plunges us into the horrors of the massacres and organized sexual violence in Nanjing. He also gives us a sense of how shifting political forces in communist China made memorializing this trauma possible, and how the Chinese government in the postwar years used tensions with Japan for purposes that had little to do with coming to terms with this profoundly painful past. Whether he is writing about far-flung places where he is a well-informed tourist or European cities where he has done deep research, Mr. Lowe is a confident guide who finds sources in each city to make our experience of the memorials more meaningful.

I was fascinated to read about the Russian penchant for massive memorials. Mr. Lowe’s narrative becomes even more compelling when he gets to Italy and the “more intimate”memorial to resistance fighters in Bologna. “In the 21st century,” he writes, “every nation likes to believe itself a nation of heroes; but deep down, most nations are beginning to think of themselves as victims.” After all, “martyrs are untouchable.”

For the past 40 years, Americans, too, have had an easier time celebrating survivors and martyrs than heroes, but when it comes to remembering World War II, the tilt toward heroism remains. This can lead to monumental disasters, like the World War II Memorial that took over a good portion of the National Mall in 2004. Mr. Lowe doesn’t say a word about it, which is perhaps an act of kindness. Others have derided its bombastic neoclassicism, calling it a “shrine to sentiment” and a “busy vacuity, hollow to the core.” Tourists still go there to pay their respects—or, perhaps, to cool off nearby in the nice fountain.

Mr. Lowe does dedicate a chapter to the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Va., which he rightly understands to be much more than a monument to the victory at Iwo Jima. The thousands who visit this monument each week, to gaze at the Marines’ outstretched arms and the American flag waving above them, see an aspiration to “virtues they believe to be universal: hope, freedom, justice and democracy.” In other parts of the world, Mr. Lowe notes dryly, the flag is seen “rather differently.”

The author’s story of an unofficial site of remembrance in Slovenia is especially powerful.While visiting the recently installed Monument to the Victims of All Wars in Ljubljana, he is disturbed by the way the “bland, abstract” memorial “repels attention.” Then a historian from the region takes him on a long drive into the countryside to visit a former coal mine that had become a mass burial site. Mr. Lowe descends into tunnels in which hundreds of men were executed and buried. He can’t help thinking about those entombed there—some while still alive. These were no heroes; most had been fighting alongside the fascists against Tito’s army: “In the end the authorities had simply locked the doors and tried to forget about them.”

Mr. Lowe believes that, in the long run, nations can’t distort history to support their current ideas and projects. Maybe. Visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, he is revolted by its memorializing of convicted war criminals and by its blatant distortions and ideological agenda. On the other hand, he is intrigued by the ways Lithuanians deal with the

legacies of Stalinism. Massive statues meant to inspire are now found in a park with animals doing their business: “The magic ingredient is ridicule.”

At the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Mr. Lowe is struck by how, in the aftermath of the war,“the urge to mourn had to compete everywhere with the urge to forget.” As a historian, he is committed to the notion that the work of mourning has to be based on what happened and not on fantasy and ideology. But he also knows that we often, maybe always, recollect the past for some purpose in the present.

Representing the past always draws on the impulse for accuracy as well as the interests of those doing the representing. I’ve argued that history and memory also draw on piety.There will always be arguments about accuracy and ideology, but perhaps we can agree to acknowledge, with the help of this thoughtful book, the very human desire to remember the most stirring dimensions of the past with piety, even with gratitude.

—Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. Among his recent books is “Memory,Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”