In the past, a lot has been done to review the impact of memorials in various societies, because they represent victory or defeat, the end of a war or of injustice, or glorification or honouring of the sacrifice of life.
Often it is only the speeches at an annual commemoration at a memorial site that recalls the victim’s sacrifice – whereas it should be the memorial itself that recalls and pays tribute to the sacrifice. Memorials convey diverse messages to society.
The impact may be clear, unclear, or inconsistent due to the lack of understanding of the desired reality it aims to represent.
In the introduction to the book Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade, writers Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin give a definition of the purpose monuments tend to satisfy:
‘… the desire to commemorate, to mark a place, to represent the past to the present and future, to emphasize one narrative of the past at the expense of others, or simply to make the past, past.’ (Nelson & Olin 2003: 2)
Nelson and Olin see memorials as serving the purpose of commemorating, determining, representing, repaying or making the past, a past. The abovementioned approaches represent valuable perspectives towards defining a memorial’s role, as it may relate to all of the victims, both combatant and civilian.
When reflecting upon martyrdom, it is also essential to take into account the reasoning that pushes a person or a number of people to sacrifice themselves.
Said simply: what was the inspiration behind the sacrifice we are commemorating?
Why does a person sacrifice oneself, if not for overcoming a serious social situation, in order to create an opportunity for a new future, stripped from the past?
The sacrifice of oneself is done in order to terminate a certain way of life during a certain period, in order to start a new sequence of events.
If we bear in mind that a fighter fights to bring about change, then we understand the purpose of a memorial and what Nelson and Olin speak of when they call for letting the past be past and for embracing the change, now, in order to be able to live with new circumstances.
This claim is especially valid if we take into account the phenomenon that eventually accompanies the construction of a memorial: its removal.
This happened in Kumrovec, where, on 27 December 1994, Tito’s statue was destroyed; then in Baghdad on 9 April 2003, Saddam Hussein’s statue was brought down; and more recently, in Gori, Georgia, a Stalin statue was removed in 2010, on 28 June.
Although statues are very authoritative and can commemorate a certain person or a group, their removal or destruction aims at diminishing people’s belief in what they represent and the inspiration they were supposed to give to society, in order to make way for new social beliefs – whether benign or destructive.
Even though the memorial dedicated to Rosa Luxemburg2 and fellow revolutionary, Karl Liebknecht, built in 1926 by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was not based on their physical attributes, it was still toppled by the Nazis in 1933. (Werner 2000: 20)
Instead of choosing to represent the physical attributes of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Mies created a memorial consisting of many boxes, which symbolised the coffins of the dead.
The boxes were made from used bricks that were reminiscent of the wall in front of which the couple was executed. (Sudjic 2005: 25)
Therefore, knowing that this memorial was impartial in its design, but based on the beliefs of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, its commemorative nature and subject was an obstacle to the Nazi regime that followed and the future they envisaged for Europe and the entire world.
Ultimately, memorials in their double-faceted existence (construction/destruction), instead of serving to bring the past closer to us, also are there to alert or inspire society on the changes associated with building the future of that society.
This way, memorials largely represent a tool of social beliefs, serving the political goals of certain parties for acceptance by the public in a certain period.
Libeskind, Daniel, Breaking Ground, (London: Penguin Books, 2005)
Nelson, Robert S. & Margaret Olin, Eds, Monuments and Memory (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003)
Sudjic, Deyan, The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World, (London: Penguin Press, 2005)
Werner, Blaser, Mies van der Rohe (Berlin: Birkhauser, 1997)
Woods, Lebbeus, War and Architecture, (New York: Princeton, 1993)