Prisoners of History, by Keith Lowe

Laura Parkinson

Lowe's latest book provokes new thought.
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Keith Lowe, a prominent author of works on the Second World War, examines nations’ architectural remembrances of the conflict in this timely book. Though the ‘Rhodes Must Fall Campaign’ gained immense traction last summer, and over the past few years Poland has removed its monuments to communism under the PiS government’s 2016 decommunisation law, Lowe highlights that globally very few wartime statues have been toppled or consciously removed. Interestingly, and very on-brand with confronting who Prisoners of History really are, Lowe remarks that “British and French leaders were…champions of colonialism,” and “American leaders still presided over a racially segregated army”; by that merit, men from the Allied forces whom we have commemorated since the 1940s “engaged in acts that would now be considered war crimes.” Considering the global movement to topple Confederate statues in the US, and statues of slave traders and Winston Churchill’s memorial in Parliament Square in the UK, Lowe’s work is a must-read to grapple the difficulty and controversy of memorialisation of the war. Indeed, as with calls to decolonise the education system owing to a lack of transparency in teaching the nation’s youth about Britain’s role on the global stage throughout history, the Second World War is sheltered by what Lowe terms “cosy memories”; which risk becoming “a trap, from which escape seems impossible.” Why do I make such a comparison if Britain’s colonial history is not the topic of Prisoners of History? The answer is simple: Lowe’s focal revelation is that monuments to the war are as much a representation of national identity and the ways we choose to use, immortalise and memorialise history. Moreover, it is how we abuse narratives of the past when in plain sight.

Lowe studies 25 memorials from 16 countries, organised into five categories: Heroes, Martyrs, Monsters, Apocalypse and Rebirth. The running argument is that these five subjects underpin collective memory of the war. Even more compelling are the incongruities revealed, most notably that who we view as heroes shifts over time. Lowe outlines that the “martyr is forever,” as such, a “nation of martyrs” is then “free to be as selfish as it wishes.” This perspective makes Lowe’s choice of monuments significant. He includes a well-balanced range enabling the retelling of some remarkable war stories, while simultaneously providing insight into the ways in which nations remember, or deny, issues surrounding national identity and the glory, triumphs, horrors and defeats of war. Lowe’s selection features memorials erected by different governments both on home territory and foreign soil; shrines, erected as un-planned acts of remembrance; and others spoiled by the inclusion of war criminals. To Lowe’s commendation, his selection is transparent: he examines memorials to atrocities carried out by the Allies as well as the Nazis, and critically engages with monuments to “Heroes” just as he does those to “Monsters.”

Prisoners of History is a catalyst seeking to provoke new thought on the memorisation of the past. However, some of Lowe’s suggestions perhaps push the limit. This is by no means a critique – personally, I struggled to accept his contention that the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau not only memorialises victims of the Holocaust, but also perpetrators. This is where I found the definition of memorialisation should not be skewed, given that by Lowe’s logic this means visiting the site “makes monsters” of us. Almost to say that by visiting, we support the actions of the Nazis.

There is beauty to Prisoners of History – it presents fresh-thinking to old ideas. In doing so, it opens such debates about who we immortalise through what we may believe is virtuous memorialisation and commemoration on face-value.

Laura Parkinson is a postgraduate student and researcher, previously concentrating on Nazi-looted art, provenance and restitution. She now focusses on women’s artwork, self-preservation and agency during the Holocaust.