Monday, August 10, 2015

On commemorating

Monument for the victims of the terror attack in Bodø, Norway

The day I arrived in Trondheim Norway commemorated the terror attacks of July 22, 2011, when 77 people were murdered. Exactly four years ago I was travelling somewhere north of Oslo. Since I avoid the news during my holidays, and also because my knowledge of Norwegian is only basic, it took some time before I knew what had happened. It came as a shock. Now I had been travelling around in the country again and one of the things I noticed were the local monuments remembering the calamity.
Commemorating impressive events of life with monuments, especially when there have been many victims or when these events have changed history in a significant way, is a normal aspect of life. Maybe some readers know that I make pictures of monuments and sites related to the First World War, which I publish on my main website (see A century after its end commemorations are still held. The more so this happens for more recent events like the Second World War, 9/11, or the shot down of the Malaysian airliner of flight MH 17 last year in the Eastern Ukraine. Remembering seems to be a basic act of life, not only for individuals but also for whole societies. Has it always been so?
My answer to this question can only be a try and please correct me if you know more about it. Anyway, I have a strong impression that it has to do something with our view on history and the way we place facts and events in life – as individuals and as society. And so I think that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. I don’t want to say that remembering the victims of a war, a violent event or a tragic incident did not happen long ago but then it had always been private or limited to small circles of people. Through the years, I have seen many monuments for the First World War – of course – and for the Second World War as well. You find them everywhere in this part of Europe and a lot of them outside this region, too. I have also seen monuments for other wars and human catastrophes like the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), or for victims of traffic accidents along roads, and so on. What strikes me is that they date from the middle of the 19th century or thereafter. Of course, there are many older monuments, like the Roman triumphal arches, but these monuments do not remember victims but victories in war. Or you find religious crosses on crossroads or chapels that have been built on memorable sites – and I think that it is the same so in non-Christian countries and regions – but they are anonymous in the sense that a casual passer-by does not know what happened there. They remember only for those who know what happened and they don’t tell you about it and just that monuments invite the passer-by to stop and to read what occurred and that they remember who died – indeed, “modern” war monuments are often full of names – is a phenomenon of relatively modern history, I think.
Why just now? As I see it, it has to do with a new idea of history called “historicism”, which developed in the 19th century and stressed the significance of the context in which things happen, and also with the rise of psychology at the same time, which stresses the importance of remembering and contending with traumas for a balanced inner life. It is not that such scholarly ideas explicitly made us build monuments but they stand for a new view on society and the way we deal with what happened to us. Once I thought that many monuments – especially monuments remembering wars – were only an expression of nationalism, so just the kind of feeling that also caused the wars that such monuments were erected for. Later I learned that nationalism is only one aspect of such monuments and often it is only a minor aspect. For monuments, like so many symbols, express especially an inner emotion and they try to summarize what many people feel and want to share with others.

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