On History

A Library Like No Other

As part of London’s Museum Lates season, I spent an hour touring the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide.

Officially established in 1939 by Dr Alfred Wiener, the library was the first to document the Holocaust. Today it contains 70,000 books and continues to accept donations – letters, photos, drawings, leaflets etc. as well as books – from that period in time, in addition to contemporary material. Donations from individuals serve to humanise the victims of genocide, and combat the faceless portrayal of them by their aggressors.

Quite the collection on HITLER (for dramatic emphasis)

Quite the collection on HITLER (for dramatic emphasis)

Collecting and making available evidence of more recent genocides is at the heart of the Wiener Library’s ethos; it strives to catalogue history as it happens and maintain present day relevance. During the Second World War the library was in fact fully funded by the government due to its usefulness in informing on Nazi atrocities, and after making an invaluable contribution to the prosecution case in the Nuremberg Trial received the transcripts. At the time of writing, the library’s most recent acquisition was children’s drawings of genocide in Darfur – harrowing pages of blood-stained childhood innocence that will hopefully preclude future whitewashing by Sudanese government officials and other deniers.

Harrowing

Harrowing

Yet as you might expect, the bulk of the material in the Wiener Library evidences Nazism in European history. In the temperature-controlled bowels of the library where the rarer collections are held, we thumbed through a Nazi arithmetic book from 1941 with questions including how much the government spends on people with congenital illnesses. We also looked at what would have seemed to be a fairly benign Nazi colouring book; an anti-Nazi manifesto printed in miniature and hidden in a teabag packet; a photo album of a Holocaust survivor; and a copy of Der Freiwillige, a neo-Nazi publication still in circulation.

I often hear Jews lampooned for harping onĀ about the Holocaust. But keeping the discourse alive is crucial to preventing genocide reoccurring. With right-wing extremist thought regarding immigration re-emerging across Europe today, I lament how quickly people seem to forget grave mistakes of the past. Collections like the Wiener Library’s plead with us to remember, as well as to recognise that crimes against humanity continue to happen.

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On History

Magnificent Maps

Due to some builder-related technical fault, the phones and internet at my work were down, so I was allowed to leave the office at 3pm. This left me with over four hours until I was due to meet friends for a meal in Covent Garden, so how did I choose to fill my time? I walked from Golders Green to the restaurant – a valiant effort, considering it was 6.5 miles in shoes that pinch! (My toes are still a little deformed from the trek.) One of my rest-stops was the British Library because I’d heard about its current exhibition, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art, and I happen to be weirdly interested in cartography (if you didn’t think I was cool already…).

When you look at a map, you have to think beyond the science of longitude and latitude. Maps are hugely subjective; they don’t just fulfil a geographical purpose. For example, they’ve often been used for self-aggrandisement by national leaders, who seek to impress upon others their status as ruler over a “great” land. Imperial rulers would demand that their conquests be signified on official maps; kings of relatively small countries tried to compensate for size by insisting national cultural and scientific achievements be emphasised by cartographers. Maps have also been used as pieces of political satire, as propagandist artefacts that tell contemporary audiences a great deal about the geopolitical climate that informed their creation.

Some favourites from the exhibition:

Detail from Stephen Walter’s The Island, which satirises the London-centric view held by people in the capital. Commuter towns are shown as independent from the city, which appears to be its own country. Note the intricate detail in the second picture.

No man is an island, but London might as well be

No man is an island, but London might as well be

The detail

The detail

Dimitri Moor’s Be On Guard! shows a heroic Soviet soldier warding off bourgeois threats to the then infant USSR.

The brave red soldier

The brave red soldier

Macdonald Gill’s Tea Revives the World (1940) is my personal favourite. The message is that tea, and by extension the Allied war effort, can cure a sick world. The map is unashamedly imperialistic in its proud demonstration of Britain’s economic and colonial dominance. I guess Gill didn’t anticipate the decline of the British Empire in the post-war period.

Tea revives

Tea revives

Confiance was made in Vichy France to demonise Churchill as a land-grabbing octopus, whose tentacles needed to be severed by the Axis powers. The octopus motif is a pretty common one; it was first used in cartography to show the imperialist threat posed by the Russians in the late nineteenth century.

Genuinely scary

Genuinely scary

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On History

The Art of Torture in Pol Pot’s Cambodia

This blog post is inspired by the fact that I’ve just finished reading Philip Short’s Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare. For those of you who don’t know, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge (a.k.a. the Communist Party of Kampuchea) unleashed upon Cambodia what can only be described as a totalitarian nightmare, from which it has yet to fully recover. The country had already been made to suffer immensely as a pawn in the US’s Cold War game in Indochina; thousands of B-52 bombing raids brought Cambodia to its knees in the early ’70s and rendered its people submissive, dispirited and most importantly, vulnerable to a Khmer Rouge takeover. The Party’s attempt at implementing a Khmer-specific, agrarian brand of communism during its four-year period of absolutist rule resulted in the creation of a modern slave state, where the urban masses were forced to evacuate the towns and become part of the peasantry, toiling on the land for little food and no money. Townspeople, and particularly intellectuals, were despised as bourgeois counter-revolutionaries; purges of alleged subversive elements of Cambodian society were commonplace and of such a magnitude that, teamed with the later purges among party ranks, they arguably constituted a genocide (though the word “genocide” doesn’t really accurately describe the Cambodian experience, as the Khmers Rouges never intended to exterminate; they set out to enslave rather than kill). The total death toll is disputed, but it is generally agreed that roughly a fifth of the population died during the period of Khmer Rouge control.

In view of the uncompromising nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, it will come as no surprise to learn that it made extensive use of prisons, and of torture methods within these institutions. The security prison Tuol Sleng, or S-21, was the epicentre of Khmer Rouge brutality. Philip Short aptly describes it as “the pinnacle, the distillation, the reflection in concentrated form of the slave state which Pol had created.” Formerly a school (I find the change from place of learning to house of pain to be fairly emblematic of the degradation of Cambodia during this period, and also of the regime’s assault on reason and logic), S-21 was where at least 14 000 people were tortured to death or sent to killing fields. Only seven inmates were known to have survived, even though its prime purpose was to extract confessions rather than to kill. Philip Short argues that this particular torture centre was different to others, in that it fitted neatly into Khmer society; it wasn’t an aberration, but rather a reflection of how the savage ways of ancient times lingered in Cambodia.

There’s some really interesting art out there documenting the horrors of S-21. Take, for example, the portraits of Nhem En. He was the chief of six photographers employed by the prison to take pictures of the new inmates as they first entered. Their faces hang in rows on the walls of Tuol Sleng, which is now a genocide museum. Imagine standing in the room populated by hundreds of these portraits, each face conveying through its fixed gaze a haunting combination of trepidation and despair.

Tuol Sleng today

The Torture Museum

Prisoner portrait

Prisoner portrait

One of the faces photographed by Nhem En belongs to Vann Nath, an artist, and one of the seven survivors of S-21. It was in fact his skill that saved him from the grisly fate met by other prisoners of the secret prison, for he was put to work painting official portraits of Pol Pot. Incredibly, Nath chose to return to the place after his escape, to work at the museum it had become. Rather than try to forget the horrors of his past, he dedicated his life and his talent to exposing the horrific acts committed by the Khmer Rouge. Vann Nath witnessed some of the most severe crimes against humanity in history; his paintings serve as a crucial reminder of past suffering, and as a powerful call for vigilance against such suffering in present and future times of crisis.

Vann Nath's handiwork

Sobering.

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