Looking back at the rubble

David Simpson

  • The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Bevan
    Reaktion, 240 pp, £19.95, January 2006, ISBN 1 86189 205 5

Thucydides claimed that posterity should not judge the power and dignity of states by their architectural remains. The power of Sparta over much of the Peloponnese and beyond could not have been inferred from an inspection of its built culture – a collection of villages with no grandiose temples or monuments. Conversely, the importance of Athens would be overestimated by anyone in later times who based their opinion on the spectacle of its architectural remains. Does it then follow that the physical destruction of ancient Sparta would have been a less decisive blow to Spartan self-identity than the same destruction would have been to the Athenians? Do all cultures, or the same cultures at different times, invest the same beliefs in a strong correlation between what they build and who they are?

Theorists and legislators have wrestled with this and other such questions since the term ‘genocide’ began to be extended to describe something called ‘cultural genocide’. Is the prohibition of a language or a religious practice tantamount to an effort to destroy a people as a people? The 1948 Hague Convention did not mention cultural genocide, for fear, perhaps that this kind of subcategory might diminish the power of its major effort to restrain the murder of human beings; but the case for an extended application kept appearing, so that by 1994 UN draft declarations would refer to propaganda directed against a people as an instance of cultural genocide. Here the intention to incite discrimination or violence against a group comes to matter as much as actually burning books and demolishing buildings: a strong assertion is being made that the slippery slope begins much sooner than had been supposed. Rafael Lemkin, who is credited with inventing the term ‘genocide’, came out somewhere in the middle, proposing that the term should describe any destructive behaviour aimed at annihilating a group of people. Could the term be applied to the actions of Israeli bulldozers in Palestinian villages, which seem to exceed the claim that they are to punish those ‘harbouring terrorists’? Probably not, or not by general agreement. It is even less likely to be applied to the ‘surgical’ strikes carried out by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – surgical only to those not on the receiving end, and often operating apparently on the wrong patients.

Malcolm Bull has recently explored the slippery implications and latent paradoxes of genocide and its definitions: that it might be more likely to be perpetrated by democracies, for example, and thus can be construed as a symptom of democracy’s bad faith, its unconscious revulsion against egalitarianism.[*] One problem with such terms as ‘genocide’ is that they invite statistical speculation on degrees of comparative suffering and the demotion of those who don’t seem to have suffered enough. At the same time, the rhetorical associations of such a term can serve to ratchet up the importance of an event that might, if described in a different way, not attract as much attention. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 could never have been received as routine news, but the rapid denomination of the site as ‘ground zero’, a term which now seems set in place as part of the common language, generated all sorts of implications of equivalence, most obviously with Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘ground zero’ is a term previously associated with the effects of exploding nuclear bombs. The term had appeared in relation to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, but didn’t catch on: there weren’t enough dead bodies. In 2001 it appeared instantly and has never lost its hold. To call something a ‘genocide’ similarly means to define it as an act of maximum destructiveness and culpability. Hence the sardonic appeal of a locution like ‘ethnic cleansing’, with its suggestion that nothing more than a routine housekeeping task is involved.

Robert Bevan begins his book with an account of his childhood obsession with photographs and film footage of the destruction of Europe’s built heritage in World War Two, an obsession that ‘felt wrong’ in relation to the ‘greater evil’ also available for inspection – ‘the perverse suffering inflicted on people in the Holocaust’. This little boy presumably got a kick out of watching the Stukas swoop over Warsaw and Rotterdam. (I wonder whether he got to see the Lancasters droning over Hamburg and Dresden.) Other little boys, I’m sure, got the same kicks in at least moderate doses, and many no doubt still do. Bevan’s book is an effort at both restitution and justification: an attempt, after all these years, to flesh out (and make fleshly) the conviction that ‘the link between erasing any physical reminder of a people and the killing of the people themselves is ineluctable.’ One might query this assumption, more easily affirmed with hindsight in specific cases than projected as an inevitable cause and effect. Few seem to have predicted Auschwitz even after Kristallnacht, yet this is one of Bevan’s prime examples of how the one thing leads to the other. The relatively limited scale of the events of 9 November 1938, directed mainly at shops and synagogues, might have looked less like a rehearsal for what was to come than an extreme instance of the dismally familiar traditions of the pogrom. And it is just about conceivable, in the spirit of the now fashionable counterhistory, to imagine that an early peace in the winter of 1940-41 (Churchill throwing in the towel, Japan backing off) might have presented Germany with the incentive for a non-genocidal response to its power over Polish Jews. Had there been a peace, the German bombings of heritage cities in the spring of 1942 – the so-called Baedeker Raids – wouldn’t have happened, and nor would the British equivalents (for which, unsurprisingly, there is no English name). As Bevan shows, it is unlikely that the targeting of medieval cities by either side represented a coherent belief in the special efficacy of destroying cultural sites. The photographs and newsreels of bombed cathedrals were in fact less useful to the perpetrators than to the victims in their effort to stir up righteous indignation.

Bevan wisely doesn’t push his case to the point of strict consistency: his weighting of the role of architecture in war is not absolutely uniform from case to case, nor does it need to be. He wants to be able to make the strong case that over the course of the 20th century architecture was increasingly ‘targeted for assassination or mass murder’, without seeming to set cultural genocide on a par with mass murder. He is happiest with evidence that the destruction of architecture is an ‘excellent indicator of whether genocidal intent is present or incipient’, and he even gives a nod to the idea that the destruction of buildings might function as an alternative to the destruction of persons, or at least might contribute to a culture of deception whereby the appearance of victory is achieved by the circulation of spectacular images that do not correlate with larger historical circumstances. Al-Qaida can look pretty impressive to both friends and enemies thanks to the footage of huge towers falling into dust and rubble.

In general, the notion that the destruction of the built environment is a strong indicator rather than a precondition of the inevitable killing of people seems right, so there seems little point in quibbling with definitions. We could – just – imagine a situation in which a state did harm by opportunistically convicting someone of genocide: an individual might, for instance, be put to death for knocking down a building on the grounds that he intended the larger crime of destroying a people. But there are few if any such instances in the record, or at least few instances where a definition of genocide was the key factor. The Reichstag Fire syndrome, whereby events are faked with the purpose of exposing opponents to extreme punishment under the guise of legal redress, will always offer opportunities for those in power to do what they want, and they will always declare a rationale, however trumped up it might be. In those cases where a legal response to crimes against humanity does seem warranted, judging for or against the criminality of someone like the late Slobodan Milosevic should not depend on exact definitions of what is and is not (cultural) genocide, or of exactly how many buildings or Bosnians it takes. The invocation of cultural genocide seems more useful as a resource for persecuted groups to draw attention to their plight, or for historians like Bevan to expose a pattern of behaviour, than as a precise legalism tempting us to equate the dissemination of propaganda with the murder of thousands, to insist that one must always lead to the other or, just as likely, to disavow the importance of propaganda because it obviously does not equate to mass murder.

Not least among Bevan’s concerns is that after a century marked by ‘wave after thunderous wave of an unparalleled cultural cataclysm’ it remains the case that the US and a few others have refused to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention protecting cultural property for fear that their freedom of action in wartime might be impeded by flags flying on buildings designated as off limits because of their cultural importance. Those same powers were prepared to indict Nazi war criminals with the destruction of culture at the Nuremberg trials: ‘six million buildings in all’. Would the Baghdad Museum have been safer had it been a world heritage site? Perhaps, given that the coalition forces would not have wished to seem to be engaging in any kind of cultural genocide while deploring and even prosecuting its own defeated enemies for exactly that. The ruins of Babylon have not fared well either, and some codified international designation could only have helped. It would at least have exposed the relative efficiency with which the Iraqi Oil Ministry was protected as the sign of an even more flagrant double standard than it is already taken to be, and it would have stood as a visible sign of an international respect for Iraqi culture that the coalition of the willing might have been less willing to flout. It also seems clear that the damage wrought by the occupation forces to cultural sites will not soon be forgotten by those to whom the offer of a certain Western-style democracy is being extended (at the point of a gun).

Bevan’s roster of examples is long and could have been longer: Sarajevo, Turkish Armenia, the Bamiyan buddhas (destroyed not just out of iconoclastic zeal but as an emblem of Hazara identity), Tibet, Israel-Palestine, Cyprus, Cambodia, Ukraine, Romania, Warsaw, the Mostar Bridge, the Babri Mosque (Ayodhya) and the ‘big houses’ of rural Ireland. Turkish killing of Armenians began before the notorious massacres of 1915, though it was not until then, Bevan suggests, that there occurred the mass destruction of the built environment, a practice which continued well after the mass murders. In Sarajevo in 1992 buildings and people were targeted simultaneously. An irreplaceable collection of archives documenting the Ottoman history of the Balkans was destroyed in the shelling of the Oriental Institute: only 0.05 per cent of the collection survived. Putting up walls can be just as destructive as tearing things down: Warsaw, Berlin, Nicosia, Belfast, Israel-Palestine. Putting up strategically offensive buildings can prefigure further aggressions, as did the ‘one-fingered gesture’ of the white crosses erected on the hills around Mostar. After 9/11 there were reports of popular support for a finger in the sky as the structure appropriate for the Lower Manhattan site, and the proposed Freedom Tower comes close to realising that image.

It is sobering to have so many apparent facts and figures in one book: 12,000 Palestinian homes destroyed between 1967 and 2004, 43,000 public libraries destroyed by the German armies in Russia; 75,000 Jewish shops vandalised in Germany in one night. At times the economy of conquest has sponsored rebuilding and revision, a taking-over rather than a destruction of property; Bevan claims this is the historical predisposition of Islamic more often than Christian states. The culture of apparent repression, of carrying on and saying nothing – which, in Sebald’s account, characterised the response of ordinary Germans after 1945 to the destruction of their cities – runs alongside the urge to rebuild brick for brick, as the Poles did in Warsaw and as some wished to do with the Twin Towers in New York. What buildings do and do not mean to people can be hard to decipher. What image does a rebuilt Warsaw communicate to Poles about themselves as a people? Do we take as the last word Bevan’s report of its signifying, like the rebuilt Mostar Bridge, ‘pride and defiance’ rather than associating it with an inevitable Disneyfication? Those who want to rebuild Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers might well claim that a facsimile, far from registering inauthenticity, would add value to an often dispraised original. Bevan raises almost as many questions as he answers about the range of attributions people make about their dwellings and public buildings. Signs of defeat can be memorials to courage (the bullet holes of Budapest) or witnesses to atrocities that should never be forgotten (the Hiroshima dome, the remnants of Auschwitz). What does it mean when a culture erases its own ruins, as postwar Germany did, and as many feel New York City is doing now, in inappropriate ways?

Heidegger looked back at the rubble left by world war and announced that the problem would not be solved simply by putting up houses. Can we imagine a world in which we do not invest our built environment with the functions of representing ourselves to ourselves as culturally alive? Walter Benjamin theorised a state of distraction in which we function ordinarily without noticing the buildings around us, and he thought of this as a state of happiness, of not needing to pay attention to what we have made as something other than natural and routine. No aura, and perhaps no Fascism. Would this condition be all the more threatened by the sorts of destruction Bevan reports, because it is so fully wrapped up in familiar bricks and mortar that their disappearance would disrupt the fabric of identity itself? Or would the distracted spirit cheerfully pick itself up and start all over again with a new set of familiar components?

Those who have to deal with the destruction of an environment must cope with these problems in ways that go far beyond the merely theoretical. Those who put them in the position of having to cope are beyond exoneration. What matters most is power and who has it over whom. At the time of its construction, the Eiffel Tower, according to Mona Ozouf, was taken by some as a symbol of the Revolution, by others as an insult to God, by others still as plain ugly. With the passage of time it became an important resource against invading armies (when used as a radio and signalling station) and finally an icon of the national culture. Yamasaki’s Twin Towers generated famously hostile responses when they were first built: all that will now be forgotten as their ghostly form haunts the national imaginary, helped along by those with an interest in conjuring them up. Their value as symbols of the national life has been multiplied by their destruction. But as far as I know not even the most hawkish of those responding to 9/11 made the claim for cultural genocide, because the imbalance of power was such that no two falling buildings could be taken as threatening the existence of the United States as a nation or of its citizens as a people. Conversely, where power belongs to the aggressor, the destruction of one family’s home might be taken as the first embodiment of a genocide. In reminding us of this Bevan has performed a valuable service, no matter what we may think about a rebuilt Warsaw or a cherished ruin. We have the privilege of wondering whether the fetishism of built objects (the heritage industry) might be a sign of our loss of authentic memory, as it was for Pierre Nora in his monumental survey of the French construction of a national past, Les Lieux de mémoire. If we accept that there is no architecturally embodied identity of a nation or people, that our current historical existence is not vitally wrapped up in relics of an imagined past except as nostalgia, then we are unlikely to worry about the occasional destruction of buildings. Bevan’s book makes clear that such insouciance (and nostalgia) is the privilege of secure and well-defended nation states where the continuity of home and shelter is assured. Britain in 1940 and perhaps in the early years of the Cold War did not enjoy such assurance. And today a life where home and shelter themselves are not routinely insecure remains for much of the world a distant prospect – a good argument for putting maximum moral and political pressure on those who have the power and desire to destroy exemplary buildings, a desire which, the record shows, mostly does not stop with the mosques and the libraries.

[*] LRB, 9 February.