Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TEAR IT DOWN: The Destruction of Historical Sites

A road? A road? My pyramid for a road?

Have you heard about this? An invaluable 2,300 year old Mayan pyramid in Belize bulldozed.
Not to make room for development, but to use its stones to build roads.  Seriously.
The pyramid in question was part of the Nohmul Complex, set in the center of a privately owner sugar cane field.  It was approximately 100 feet tall and a well-known ruin.
They can dig rock out of the earth anywhere and crush it for building materials, and instead they bulldozed a historical size.  It is the MAYANS we are talking about here, not a recent civilization that still exists or anything.  Plus, this pyramid was on private land, and all of these historical ruins are government protected, though they never do much about it.  This has been a common occurrence recently.

Where the House of Abu Bakr once stood, now part of the Hilton.
What is to be done?

 Not that destruction of the majesty of the past is anything new; religious sites in particular are susceptible to damage or complete demolition, especially during war.
Islamic heritage sites are very much endangered, though ironically, they have removed some of their own ancient treasures.  For example, several mosques and the house of Abu Bakr were demolished in Mecca to make way for a very Las Vegas style hotel strip surrounding the Kaaba.

A once beautiful palace and prime example of Islamic-Iranian architecture, the victim of Baha'i persecution.

A Syrian minaret wrecked by current conflict.

The famous tallest Buddha statue in the world, 


  When is it appropriate to destroy a historical site?
 Can they really be considered mere "casualties of war?"

Does it change your mind to know that some ancient cultures are responsible for more destruction of their own valuable sites than we are today?
The Romans were particularly guilty of these, from royals plundering old temples to build up their own palaces, to pulling the supports out of the Colosseum to melt down and use for steel.

What about historical sites where unpleasant events took place?
Like the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris?
This was a huge indoor bicycle racing track used for multiple sports, and the first indoor permanent Parisian amphitheater. Hemingway wrote about it.  In 1942 it was used during the Jewish roundup and thousands of French Jews were kept there for a week in sweltering heat with no bathroom and limited food and water before being sent to concentration camps.

Shameful of what the Vel d'Hiv had stood for, the French tried to revive it as a track after the war, but it fell into disrepair and many were repulsed by the memory of what had happened there and had no desire to attend events in it.

It was destroyed in 1959.

Hitler's Berghof in the mountains of Bavaria was critical to who he was and what he did.  As he put it, "My great plans were forged here."  He lived here for years and important documents were stored here.
American soldiers bombed it when they arrived in 1945, and my Grandfather, who was stationed in Germany, witnessed the destruction.  We actually have a postcard he sent with a photograph of the destroyed building where he mentioned how the soldiers were making a mockery of it and playing in the rubble with some of the valuables that had been inside.
Can you imagine? "Oh, here is Hitler's tea mug! Look, Eva Braun's tablecloth..."
Of course with what was happening in the world, the instinct of the liberating soldiers would to be complete destruction.  But was it right?
When is this sort of destruction justified?
What if there was something in the rubble that could have helped us better understand this monster and the way his thoughts worked and some unknown aspect of the Nazi party?
The bombing raid didn't accomplish full demolition, so the Bavarian government blew it up completely a few years later, to "discourage tourists" or so they said.
I think humiliation was also a large factor in their decision to get rid of it.
Desire to cover up a dirty  past is a shared cross-cultural sentiment.
 All that remains is the overgrown structure.  Nature has reclaimed the rest.
Would anyone hiking through the area with no knowledge of history suspect the thoughts and events that took place there? Plans that would change the world forever?

I love coming across old ruins and wondering what happened there.
I often think my own daydreamed narratives are better than the actual history of a place.

Many things tied to World War II have since been destroyed, and yet some that people deem upsetting and purposeless in preserving remain, namely concentration camps.
Should these be destroyed?
Should they be left to let nature reclaim?  Should they be mass graves? Should they be cordoned off and left to rot?
A variety of these options have already been enacted on the concentration camps of WWII-- some have been preserved as museums, others marked as cemeteries only, and a few destroyed (by the Nazis to cover up evidence).
Treblinka was one of these.
The Nazis thrashed it in 1943, razing the buildings and planting trees to disguise what was once there.  But 1946 investigations (to gain evidence used in war crime trials) found barbed wire, remains of burnt fences, the old train tracks prisoners were brought in on, an old well, and foundation stones of the administrative building.  Upon digging they of course found human remains and ash. These were left alone (no excavation) as it is against Jewish belief.
So it is a mass grave.  And I like the way that it has been left.
Plaszoq camp is similar. This is the camp Schindler's List was based on (and parts of it filmed there).
 Here is it then...

 And today.
Bergen-Belsen is a graveyard, including the tombstone of Anne Frank. 

But some camps have been wholly preserved, most famously (or infamously), Auschwitz.

It exists to educate people about the Holocaust, and, so they hope, prevent anything as horrific from happening ever again.
Psychohistorian Joel Markowitz put it ""Neurologists tell us that memories aren't fixed representations of experiences...Museums collect evidence of past events... The collective Jewish mind uses such museums to work through its remarkable levels of trauma and loss; and to better understand their history and post-Holocaust evolution as a very different people than they had been."

What do you think?  Can we achieve this?
Is a museum on the site of an unchanged death camp a way to neutralize the horrors of what took place there?
Can the artifacts on display--including human hair and shoes--create empathy?
Can empathy be a cure against hatred and genocide?
Or should these buildings be torn down? Does the history of murder ever truly leave a place?

Just some heavy thoughts on history and humans and destruction for your Wednesday afternoon.  Let me end with a Carl Sandburg poem I love that addresses these notions: 


    ILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
    Shovel them under and let me work--
    I am the grass; I cover all.
    And pile them high at Gettysburg
    And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
    Shovel them under and let me work.
    Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
    What place is this?
    Where are we now?
    I am the grass.
    Let me work.

1 comment:

  1. This is precisely the way I think about this subject. Specially in the case of the Berghoff, a great opportunity to preserve what still remained of a historic site has been lost - and all because of a monumental Bavarian government´s mistake.