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Prisoners of History Reviews

Prisoners of History by Keith Lowe

Prisoners of History

What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves

Keith Lowe

3.90 out of 5

5 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: William Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 9 Jul 2020
ISBN: 9780008339548

What happens when our values change, but what we have set in stone does not?

  • The TimesBook of the Week
4 stars out of 5
19 Jun 2020

"Lowe ends with a warning against tearing any of them down. Doing that simply drives history underground"

Lowe is a fine guide to these monuments because he feels the moral force — for good or bad — of each site he visits. Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to all those who have died in battle in the past century and a half, appals him, not just because it honours the brutal Kempeitai military police, the equivalent of the SS, but also because the attached museum denies any war guilt: it blames the Chinese for the Japanese invasion of China, the Americans for Pearl Harbor. The site the author finds most compelling may also be the least well known. 


3 stars out of 5
Jonathan Meades
1 Aug 2020

"Lowe’s commentaries are more articulate and supple than the monuments they describe, interpret and criticise"

In 1987 Marie Uchytilová’s curious monument to the tragedy had not yet been created. Even if it had existed, it could not have been as touching and chilling as Nešporová’s testimony – which was, of course, verbal. Time after time throughout Prisoners of History, Keith Lowe’s commentaries are more articulate and supple than the monuments they describe, interpret and criticise. Without such commentaries, many of the monuments are reduced to the state of mute conceptual art that refers only to itself. Peter Eisenman’s frivolous ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in Berlin, for instance, evidently derives from the work of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, who have nothing to say, and say it. The narcissistic blankness of the emperor’s new art is even more insulting given that it bears, or ought to bear, a responsibility to the millions it supposedly commemorates. The German government, realising that bloated minimalism could ‘mean’ anything or nothing, insisted on an information centre being constructed beneath the memorial. The spectator who enters this facility is, then, caught in a mental trap, being instructed what to think, what to feel and how to react. Figurative works set that same trap without requiring explanation in another medium.

4 stars out of 5
Max Hastings
12 Jul 2020

"(a) sensitive, disturbing study"

Lowe’s sensitive, disturbing book should be compulsory reading for both statue builders and statue topplers. Too many memorials of all kinds seek to promote deceits or half-truths. While recognising their imperfections, however, we should be readier to indulge these than are some modern protesters.

4 stars out of 5
11 Jul 2020

"A fascinating look at monuments to the second World War"

Prisoners of History is the latest in a series of fine books about the second World War by Lowe. Based on interviews, personal observation and detailed research, it is a compelling and fascinating read.

4 stars out of 5
4 Jul 2020

"some of the most thought-provoking writing about the second world war that I have read for a long while"

Questioning even the most dearly held positions is what gives this book its power, however, and Lowe also makes some courageous choices. After reading some hard-hitting essays on the horrors of war, I was looking forward to a gentler, more uplifting section on rebirth. In fact these last essays are just as challenging, with their censure of the ‘hopelessly dated’ mural in the UN Security Council chamber; the sad failure of Coventry’s rebirth as a centre for reconciliation; and a robust essay on the balcony at the end of the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem, which looks out over the Judean hills in a way that is ‘faintly disingenuous’, given that these hills are the site of an atrocity undertaken by Jewish paramilitary forces against Arab civilians.