Blogs > Cliopatria > Diana Muir: Review of Robert Bevan's The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (London, Reaktion Books)

May 13, 2007 11:53 pm

Diana Muir: Review of Robert Bevan's The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (London, Reaktion Books)

[Diana Muir, author of Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England, is currently working on a book on nations and nationalism.]

The sheer volume and scope of the material Bevan has gathered on destruction of architectural heritage as a form of “cultural cleansing” makes The Destruction of Memory a valuable resource. Its great virtue is its range, covering the Nazi intention to obliterate the built heritage of Poland, the ongoing Chinese campaign to obliterate Tibetan culture, and the IRA bomb that toppled Admiral Nelson from his monumental Pillar in Dublin.

Although Bevan covers the Globe, he concentrates on those territories most familiar to Europeans, particularly the terrain of European and eastern Mediterranean ethnic conflict: the Balkans, Germany, Jews, and Armenians. Bevan’s topic is not the destruction of the Armenians, but the destruction of the built landscape of Armenian. He focuses on the deliberate erasure of memory that has taken place in the decades since the genocide as Armenia’s stone churches with their distinctive, conically-roofed domes have been made to disappear. Modes of destruction vary. Some were lost because there was no one left to maintain them, some were dismantled by a victorious ethnie that deliberately uses Armenian buildings as a legitimate source of dressed stone, others were deliberately destroyed to serve a political end. That end is to erase the evidence that much of southeastern Turkey was once Armenian.

Unfortunately, Bevan is given to sweeping assertions of truths that are either unsupported or demonstrably wrong. Is it true, as Bevan asserts, that Christianity “has always” been given “to destroying the religious architectural heritage of its rivals” while Islam “has generally” converted them “to mosques rather than destroying them?” Who knows? If there is evidence that would enable a score to be tallied, Bevan doesn’t provide it.

What Bevan too often does provide are bad facts. For example, he flatly states that “every remaining mosque in Athens… was… demolished.” Minarets were a particular target during the Greek war of independence, because the Muslim ban on church bells was enforced under Ottoman rule (some Greek monasteries display the huge, hanging wooden beams that were struck by monks forbidden to ring the hours with bells) and because the tall minarets were a constant and humiliating reminder of occupation and subservience, made concrete by Islamic restrictions on the height, repair, and building of churches. One of the most poignant buildings in Greece is the Ottoman-era cathedral at Athens, a tiny, low building patched together out of found stones.

Unlike the minarets, mosques were not uniformly destroyed when the Ottomans were driven out in 1829. They were reused for other purposes. In Athens the Fethiya, or Camii, or Mosque of the Conquerer (built in the ancient Agora on the site of a Byzantine Church) and Tzistarakis Mosque on Monasteriki Square (now a Ceramics Museum) survive.

Elsewhere we learn that in 1968 a “Jewish tourist” set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque. In fact, the arson was committed by an Australian Christian intending to hasten the second coming of Jesus.

And we are informed that “many millions” of ethnic Germans resident in Eastern Europe were “killed” in the aftermath of World War II. Not even Alfred-Maurice de Zayas cites such inflated numbers.

While the density of errors of fact ought not to be excused, it is somehow outweighed by the mass of absolutely fascinating, morally complex, and, to me at least, often unfamiliar material. I was not aware of how close we came to actually losing Paris. Bevan describes Hitler’s command to his retreating army to level Paris with explosives. The plan was foiled by the insubordination of Dietrich von Choltitz, a Nazi General not otherwise known to have sided with the angels. Nicolea Ceausescu, who I remembered, if at all, as just another drearily vile, Soviet-era puppet dictator, emerges as the author of a remarkable plan to produce a new-model Romanian worker, in part by razing virtually every village, town, and historic building in the entire country - and replacing them with a Marxist built landscape. Communism fell before he could complete the project. Germany, by contract, demolished only a few of the Nazi buildings left standing at the war’s end. Prime among them were the Ehrentempels, a pair of classical-style temples located on the Nazi ceremonial plaza in Munich. They were built to enshrine the remains of the Nazi martyrs killed in the Beer Hall Putsch of November 9, 1923, part of the extraordinary secular religious faith of Nazism. Material like this makes Bevan well worth reading despite the flaws.

Most of the flaws in The Destruction of Memory appear to follow from the author’s reliance on skewed and biased sources. Bevan relies heavily on news accounts. Students of nationalism are all too aware of the rarity not only of objective reporting in areas experiencing ethnic conflict, but of the difficulty of verifying even the most basic facts. Bevan appears unaware of how easily even competent reporters for reputable newspapers can be misled on the hotly contested terrain of ethnic conflict. And, errors of fact aside, there are errors of omission that occur because covering the destruction of architecture in countries with a free press is simple, and criticizing nations with a boisterous and self-critical press, even easier. India comes in for harsh criticism for the destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, an incident widely covered and condemned in the Western press and in India’s own easily accessed English-language press. The anti Muslim mob destroyed the Babri mosque in a context in which millions of Muslims participate in Indian society with full civil rights. The ethnic cleansing of Pakistan’s Hindus, by contrast, has been continuous since 1948 so that the Hindu population of Pakistan, thought to have been between 15 and 24 percent in 1947, is now below 2 percent. The last remaining Temple in Lahore was destroyed last year. Systematic destruction of Hindu sites in Pakistan is ignored by Bevan, who reserved his criticism for India.

The problem of sources is equally dramatic in the section on Israel, where the author’s reliance on extreme critics of Israel – both Jewish and Palestinian – leads him to repeat an extensive series of bad facts. For example he asserts that Jewish graves are “sacred” and “safeguarded from development” while Muslim graves are “often either destroyed or buried.” In fact, graves of every faith are moved with some frequency in rapidly developing Israel, always with respectful reburial – the Antiquities Authority has guidelines covering the moving of human remains from construction sites. The moving of graves – whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish - is inevitably accompanied by a political uproar. Bevan did not invent the canard he repeats, but he is guilty in this and numerous other instances, of lazily repeating highly partisan falsehoods that reflect his failure to use a balanced array of sources or to check facts.

If the great strength of this book is that Bevan has assembled a massive array of instances of the destruction of buildings and districts of peculiar resonance to the identities of peoples and nations, the great weakness lies in the almost complete lack of theory. The book leaves the strong impression that the author is innocent of even an awareness of the existence of theoretical constructs enabling the disciplined examination of such questions as the legitimacy of bombing of civilian targets in defensive war, or how to weigh the duty to refrain from shelling important cultural property against the use of that property as a bunker from which to launch missiles. Such ignorance might be forgiven had Bevan refrained from making moral or ethical judgments and merely catalogued incidents of destruction. Instead, the book is studded with moral judgments of the most sweeping and scattershot kind. In place of reasoned consideration of jus in bello, we are given simplistic pronouncements that this or that action is “illegal,” a claim that “the aerial bombers of … Hamburg” should have been “sent for trial,” and a complaint that “The Germans once again got the blame” for the destruction of the University Library of Leuven when they attacked in 1940.

Bevan’s habit of punctuating his text by pairing for equal condemnation two actions that are ethically distinguishable is an additional serious shortcoming. Bevan equates the failure of the U.S. invasion force to anticipate the need to protect Iraqi cultural resources, with the Mahdi Army’s cynical use of the Imam Ali shrine as an armed base immune to attack. The decay of Rome and its buildings after the serial sackings by Visigoths and Ostrogoths left the city depopulated is equated with the methodical Roman obliteration of Jewish Jerusalem in the year 70. The 1948 Arab bombing of civilians on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda shopping street (with no warnings issued) is equated with the 1946 Jewish bombing of the British military headquarters (with an evacuation warning issued.)

In the hands of a political theorist like Michael Walzer, the material that Bevan has diligently gathered could have provided a compelling study of the place of architectural destruction in the ethics of war. In Bevan’s hands, it is an uneven and morally confused but endlessly fascinating tour remarkable and complex landscapes of architecture and imagination.

And yet the book is worth reading, because Bevan uses vivid narrative detail to bring to our attention the important insight that “the destruction of the cultural artifacts of an enemy people or nation” can be a kind of analog to genocide or ethnic cleansing. Bevan demands that attention be paid to “The active and often systematic destruction of particular building types or architectural traditions that happens in conflicts where the erasure of the memories, history and identity attached to architecture and place – enforced forgetting – is the goal itself. These buildings are not attacked because they are in the path of a military objective: to their destroyers they are the objective.”

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Charles S Young - 5/14/2007

Reviewer Diana Muir has no quarrel when author Robert Bevan describes Turkish Muslims erasing Armenia from the map. But when when the very same researcher, the very same analyst, turns his sights on Israel, suddenly he is "lazily repeating highly partisan falsehoods."

Muir claims Bevan lets Muslims off the hook because "covering the destruction of architecture in countries with a free press is simple, and criticizing nations with a boisterous and self-critical press, even easier." Yet Armenia is an important example of Bevan's, and it is illegal in Turkey to even write that that holocaust occurred.

Most importantly, the fact that Bevan might have light coverage of Pakistan in no way undermines evidence of architectural cleansing in Israel. According to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Israel even set up an official Naming Committee to "Hebraize Palestine's geography." In the national forest at Birya, six villages have been erased, not even signs remain where homes once stood. They are covered over by an arboreal recreation area. (Page 230, Pappe's _The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine_.) But thank goodness the corpses are reburied in a "respectful" manner.

I have read enough of Muir's writing to see that she is on a jihad to villainize any and all criticism of Israel. Partisanship is fine when people are honest about it, but she claims to write as a scholar, not a polemicist. Her method is the classic one: ignore the weight of evidence and argument, focus on on creating cracks in a few anecdotal examples (like focusing graves, not villages). The idea is to get all of the evidence and argument rejected by blackening the reputation of an authority. This is the same approach as the 911 or JFK conspiracy nuts. Denial of the Nakba requires as much self delusion as denying any genocide.

But Muir is right that it is easy to be "misled on the hotly contested terrain of ethnic conflict."

To read what Bevan actually says, go here: