“Commemorating the dead is part of human culture. Commemorating the fallen is … part of political culture.” War and Suffering Exhibit at the Military Museum in Dresden, Germany
By: Tory Russo
This semester we’ve visited countless sites of memory and seen plenty of examples of commemoration including cemeteries, monuments and memorials. While there’s a clear difference between how people remember the dead and how governments remember the dead, I don’t agree that the divide is as clear as this quote makes it seem. I don’t think that these two “types” of commemoration are independent because human culture can’t be this neatly separated from political culture and vice-versa.
This quote attempts to differentiate human and political commemoration through the use of the words dead and fallen. Although these two words have slightly different connotations, they have the same literal meaning and are referencing the same people. The way human culture remembers these people must comply with their political system and the way that political culture remembers these people should satisfy its population. In this sense, it is impossible to only do one and not the other.
In Dresden, every February 13th the victims of the Allied bombings of 1945 are commemorated. Demonstrations are held by four main groups who gather to remember the lives lost, including NeoNazis, people with personal connections, citizens opposing the NeoNazis and left extremists. The NeoNazis focus on the terror of the attacks against the German people. The citizens with a personal connection light candles and lay flowers. The group opposing the NeoNazis hand in the route for their march early enough to obtain political approval before the NeoNazis. The leftist extremists: “Do the bombing again.”
These demonstrations are part of human commemoration. It is how people are honoring and remembering the dead. Because of the nature of these groups and the possibility of violence, political culture has interfered with their remembrance. In 2009, the municipal officials had an idea to build a human chain around the center to keep the two radical groups out of the city center. The argument against this decision is that all of these groups are mourning the same event and people. All of these demonstrations are acts of commemoration that are part of human culture, but the political culture has regulated who can remember, how and where. While it may be out of necessity for safety reasons, it only allows some to commemorate and prevents others from doing the same.
In Wrocław, many people that lived here during WWII were average German people. For more than 200 years this city belonged to Prussia, which eventually became Germany. The deaths of these people were commemorated through burials in cemeteries, a part of human culture. After the Yalta Conference, the borders of Poland shifted 150 km to the west and Bresleau became the Polish city of Wrocław. The Germans were expelled and Poles from formerly-Polish territories in the east moved to the city. In an act known as “degermanification” or “polonization” the city was cleansed of its German history to make it feel more familiar to its new inhabitants.
Part of this process included raising this German cemetery that is today a park, located across the street from the Polish Grabiszyńska cemetery. There is also a memorial, the Monument to Shared Memory, within this park. At the entrance, there is a sign that loosely translates to mean “Cemeteries can be destroyed, memories cannot be destroyed.” This German cemetery, a human commemoration of the dead, was destroyed. However, it was part of a political process that aimed to destroy the German memory in the city of Wrocław, which was largely successful. It’s another example of political culture deciding the logistics of remembrance for human culture.
In Vilnius, there are visible differences between the commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and victims of the Soviet regime. Both were unjustified mass murders of specifically selected groups or people. At Paneriai Forest, over 100,000 Jews were systematically shot and killed in large pits. Although there is currently a state-sponsored competition for a new memorial, the only commemoration is a small, old museum, a few plaques and some monuments, one of which was erected during the Soviet regime and another that was donated by a Jewish family. During Stalinism, prisoners were shot by the KGB in the prison and transported to Tuskulenai Park, a manor on what was then the outskirts of the town. Here over 700 people were buried in individual or mass graves. Today the manor is a museum and there is a dome with a mausoleum-style interior where the remains of each person are labeled by numbers. Families of the deceased, as well as visitors, are able to access the space.
The nature of the situations complicates commemoration. In the case of Paneriai, the number of murders that took place makes it impossible to know for certain who might or might not have died there. It is especially difficult because the bodies were burned. Although at Tuskulenai significantly less people were buried there, only some of the bodies have been identified and about 50 of the bodies are still missing. While the scale of these two events must be taken into consideration, it is also important to analyze the context. Lithuanians took part in the murders of Jews at Ponary forest, but were victims in the murders carried out by the KGB under the Soviet regime. It’s this conflicting identity of perpetrator and victim that influences the politics of commemoration at each of these sites.
In this region, the trauma and terror of the last century were direct results of two totalitarian occupations. To claim that today’s governments want to commemorate what happened but don’t want to have ties to them is virtually inarguable. Although it is the people that need to mourn the lives lost, the governments can neither ignore how the people are remembering or neglect to remember for themselves. Human culture and political culture are not two entities, but rather two parts of the same whole. Because of that memory and commemoration of the dead, whether in the form of cemeteries, memorials or monuments, is inevitably politicized.