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.
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.
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.
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.
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.