New Ways Of Seeing Conflicts
There’s a bit of a war theme running through my head this week because of the Armistice commemorations, and the sense that the passing of one hundred years since ‘the war to end all wars’ might bring some sense of closure. I hadn’t watched the BBC documentaries made by Adam Curtis about post-war life for a while, so I put one on last night. Specifically, it showed how the Nuremberg trial was subverted by abandoning all efforts to understand how ordinary German citizens could become caught up in Nazism, in favour of presenting a simplified picture of good VS evil, a technique subsequently adopted by governments around the world. In much the same way, Hannah Arendt’s efforts to explain ‘the banality of evil’ during the trial of Adolf Eichmann caused her statement to be regarded as an apologia.
Arendt attempted to explain how ordinary people become actors in totalitarian systems, which you can only do if you reach further back to the roots of discontent – and in this case you eventually arrive back at the First World War.
This may be why I’ve always been fascinated with the history of Central and Eastern Europe. This weekend I’m going to Ljubljana in Slovenia, then next month while in Krakow I’m going to visit Auschwitz; here’s only so much you can read before direct contact is required.
It took America a long time to realise that Europe is darker, stranger and more complex than they imagined, and there may not be much more understanding now that a Putin-fixated POTUS can’t tell the difference between the Baltics and the Balkans (an April speech by Trump opened by chastising the Baltic leaders for starting the war in the 1990s that ended with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, much to the confusion of the attendees).
On several of my past trips I’ve visited museums, prisons and houses of detention, from the Hanoi Hilton to Lithuania’s KGB building, and they are being reclaimed in ever more intelligent ways, shifting focus from the oppressors to the oppressed and reducing one’s sense of helplessness by showing how past legacies can be reshaped by art and culture. For example, the colourisation of war photographs has returned immediacy to the participants in conflict. Peter Jackson’s documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ has brought a new level of technical expertise to the restoration of these artifacts.
I was born just eight years after the end of WWII and as a child already considered emerging war photographs to be ancient history. Now we can find new ways of relating to and understanding past tragedies.