Razing the Past: Soldiers and Civilians Are Not the Only Casualties of War. Aggressors Also Target the Physical Monuments to an Enemy's Existence and So Attack Their Libraries, Churches and Schools. Robert Bevan Reports on the Destruction of Memory

By Bevan, Robert | New Statesman (1996), December 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Razing the Past: Soldiers and Civilians Are Not the Only Casualties of War. Aggressors Also Target the Physical Monuments to an Enemy's Existence and So Attack Their Libraries, Churches and Schools. Robert Bevan Reports on the Destruction of Memory


Bevan, Robert, New Statesman (1996)


Two weeks ago in Anata, Jerusalem, a Palestinian stood contemplating the rubble of his family home in the winter rain. "Did my house kill anyone that they should do this to me?" he asked. The Jerusalem municipality has 1.5 million shekels left in its demolition budget--enough to level 70 Palestinian homes--and it needs to spend the money before the end of the year. Such demolitions are part of Israel's campaign to create "facts on the ground": the aim is to guarantee Jerusalem's survival as the country's "eternal and undivided capital". Thousands of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, in Gaza and around Jerusalem have been destroyed in the face of international condemnation. Bulldozers have become a weapon of war.

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Israel's assault on Palestinian houses is not unique. In times of conflict, civilian homes are invariably singled out for attack. In recent decades, whole villages have been eradicated in various parts of the world, from Saddam Hussein's Iraq to Rwanda and Darfur. But homes are not the only type of building that has been targeted. Countless libraries, museums, churches and monuments have also been destroyed, representing an incalculable loss to the world's cultural patrimony.

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Attacks on buildings are often carried out well away from the front line, reflecting their goal. This is not to rout an opposing army. Rather, they are a way of pursuing ethnic cleansing or genocide by other means, a way of rewriting history. Viewed through the eyes of an aggressor, the architecture of the enemy assumes a totemic quality: a mosque is not simply a mosque but a symbol of the presence of a community marked for erasure; a library or art gallery is a cache of historical memory, evidence of a community's historic presence and an emblem of its right to a continued existence.

The havoc wreaked by this type of warfare is not "collateral damage"; it is the active and often systematic destruction of specific types of building or architectural traditions. Invariably, a deliberate twisting of the historical record is involved. After masterminding the murderous expulsion of Muslims and the razing of mosques in the Bosnian town of Zvornik in the early 1990s, the mayor told reporters: "There never were any mosques in Zvornik." Throughout the Bosnian war, the country's unique and beautiful Islamic architectural heritage was smashed, burned and bulldozed into pits--sometimes with the bodies of murdered Bosniaks interred alongside.

"The struggle of people against power," wrote Milan Kundera, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting." In my book The Destruction of Memory: architecture at war, I examine this architectural iconoclasm and explore how, in the 20th century, cultural cleansing reflected the fortunes of peoples at the hands of their destroyers. There is no shortage of examples. From Guernica and Dresden to Cambodia and Bosnia, cultural sabotage occurred on an astonishing scale. The Young Turks' genocide of the Armenians was accompanied by the eradication of splendid Armenian architectural monuments, the Chinese conquest of Tibet by the ravaging of monasteries and vernacular buildings.

However, it is Kristallnacht, the Nazis' destruction of hundreds of synagogues on the nights of 9 and 10 November 1938, that stands as the most iconic example of the destruction of memory. …

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Razing the Past: Soldiers and Civilians Are Not the Only Casualties of War. Aggressors Also Target the Physical Monuments to an Enemy's Existence and So Attack Their Libraries, Churches and Schools. Robert Bevan Reports on the Destruction of Memory
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