Lately, in the context of Remembrance Day here in the Netherlands, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the different ways in which World War II is being remembered today. For us, being occupied by Nazi Germany during the war has become a foundation myth of our identity, and most Dutch novels, films, and even musicals (Soldier of Orange, based on the book of the same name) about the war centre around the two main protagonists in that myth: the evil collaborators and the virtuous members of the resistance. You can even pretend to be a member of the underground press in an escape room in Nijmegen, racing against the clock to escape discovery by the Nazis.
On Remembrance Day, May 4th, and Liberation Day, May 5th, we are all reminded of what it means to be living in a free country. In recent years, however, debates have arisen in different quarters about the meaning of freedom in the Netherlands. People have balked at the notion that we might use the traditional two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day, which we traditionally observe at 8 p.m., to remember not just the Jews, of whom 107.000 were deported from the Netherlands during the war, but also refugees who have perished while fleeing the war-torn Middle East in recent years. Others find it outrageous that the Holocaust has now become so normalised that we can longer spare a mere two minutes of silence and contemplation for the victims. Instead, they say, those two minutes are now apparently a free-for-all, used to commemorate of victims of terrorism anywhere and anytime. Given that the Jews were the main object of such horrifying levels of persecution, dehumanization and, indeed, extermination, it is understandable that people think these two minutes that were traditionally dedicated to them oughtn’t to be “used up” by victims of other conflicts. On the other hand, Remembrance Day hasn’t been solely about the Jews for years now; I remember when I was growing up that its meaning had been expanded to include Dutch military personnel who perished during the conflict in Afghanistan. Personally, I am neither for or against either opinion, but I find it incredibly important that there is a discourse about what various countries choose to mythologize, remember and eulogize, and what they choose to cast into oblivion. Because for all our little-country-sticking-it-to-the-nasty-Germans reputation, the Netherlands is far from innocent; the four bloody years of colonial warfare in the Dutch East Indies, where, after these had been freed from the Japanese, the Dutch struggled in vain to retain their grip on their increasingly rebellious colony, are conveniently reduced to a footnote in most history books (not to mention the bloody repressive measures exercised by the Dutch authorities during the previous 300 years of colonial occupation). For the Indonesian citizens, the war wasn’t over until 1949, but 1945 remains the date that is ingrained in our minds.
As we journey through time further and further away from the Second World War, it is interesting to consider how its position in culture and history worldwide has transformed as a result of the increasing number of films, books, museums and other forms of commemoration that have emerged over the past seventy years. At the same time, there is still so much that we don’t know: some things have been kept secret for years and are now suddenly seeing the light of day (for example, evidence of the Allied destruction of Dutch villages that were evacuated and declared occupied territory, was only discovered this year, in the form of numerous letters of complaint to the Allied commanders from local officials). The myth of the Allies as virtuous saviours has begun to show cracks, and now that we are safe in the future, there is more room for critical discussion about the myth of “good versus evil” as manifested in an increasingly diverse collection of films about the war, which offer not just fresh perspectives on major battles but also personal tales of life in Nazi Germany or under occupation. Standard Hollywood flicks about a ragtag band of American GIs taking on a thousand Germans (see: Fury ) are beginning to feel empty and devoid of any important message. In the light of recent conflicts, it is — hopefully — becoming apparent that no country or people can be deemed essentially evil or essentially good, even in war (especially in war). To this end, commemoration plays a special role: what a country chooses to remember shapes its identity. In the case of the Netherlands, fewer and fewer people believe that we are still an innocent country that exercised a benign influence on a “backwards” Asian country for three centuries, and that the crimes we committed in our colonies in no way measure up against the cruelties committed against us by the Germans. And though the war is still remembered in many meaningful and important ways, we are beginning to accept that there are many different versions of the story, and many other voices that we need to listen to.
Auschwitz and Austerlitz
In contrast to respectful and communal commemoration, such as the ceremonies that take place on May 4th all over the country, I want to look at a phenomenon that I became acquainted with when I first took an interest in World War II and began visiting sites connected to the war: war tourism. It interests me because tourism is usually synonymous with crowds, selfie sticks, a loss of meaning and indeed vulgarization of the site in question. Therefore I was most interested when on May 3rd, in a small film theatre in Utrecht, they showed a documentary called Austerlitz by Ukranian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. Shot in black and white, the documentary purports to give an objective view of modern-day tourism at two former concentration camps in Europe: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. There is no music or voice-over commentary; some strategy can be detected, though, as several scenes which feature a Spanish tour guide and her group have subtitles. Loznitsa placed cameras at certain locations in the camps and recorded hours of footage, from which he compiled a two-hour film.
Of course, a film — no matter how objective it tries to be — is always subjective. The filmmaker always chooses which scenes he does and doesn’t want to show, and thus shows his personal opinion about the subject. In this case, Austerlitz wasn’t overtly judgmental, but it was evidently meant to incite the indignation of its audience. What the documentary showed was, quite simply, groups of visitors that can be seen at Dachau and Sachsenhausen every day. We saw people take selfies with the three famous words on the gate — Arbeit macht frei — and then go in; we saw them strolling through the barracks, eating a sandwich or arbitrarily taking pictures; we saw them listening to tour guides, or reading signs, lost in contemplation. The camera didn’t move: the film was a compilation of usually five-minute long single-frame scenes during which a procession of visitors would pass before the lens, to be judged and contemplated by us, the audience, at our leisure. What I imagine Lozintsa wanted to show was how disrespectful people these days behave towards these ruins, these shameful artefacts of the Third Reich. We see people wearing T-shirts that could be considered inappropriate or at the very least ironic, with logos and slogans like “Jurassic Park”, “Today is your lucky day”, “Cool story bro”, “I got 99 f***king problems”, etc. We see people posing for pictures and selfies with the long-cold ovens at the crematoria (and in one scene, the Spanish tour guide explains the purpose of three wooden poles, which were used to tie prisoners to while their screams echoed around the grounds, after which one man has his picture taken against the pole with his hands above his head, as if he has been tied to it). There are also shots of people looking down at something — a statue, a plaque? — with a genuine and serious interest, showing that the film wasn’t entirely meant to condemn the decadent tourist and his or her lack of respect for these camps. But the overall tone of the film was enough to fuel a discussion about war tourism afterwards in the cinema café.
One important point that was brought up during this discussion was ethical tourism. Is there an etiquette for visiting war sites, and for concentration camps in particular? It is characteristic of the camps that it is and will always be unimaginable what horrors took place there at the height of its activity. Even though we’ve read the stories of survivors, we know the number of people that perished there, we’ve seen its leaders condemned, we’ve seen good and bad depictions of it in film and on television — there will never be a sane person who can grasp the concept of Auschwitz (I’m taking Auschwitz as the main example, as it is the most famous). I have not personally been to Auschwitz, though it is on my list, but I have three friends who have been there individually. All three described it as impressive, and felt that it was necessary to have been there, but also emphasised feeling at times disconnected to the site itself. It is entirely possible not to feel anything in particular when walking around the barracks, and to only get a lump in one’s throat when seeing the piles of hair, shoes and jewellery that serve as sinister reminders of their previous owners.
In his book The Truce, Auschwitz-survivor Primo Levi talks about the calculated madness of Auschwitz and the Germans’ “genius of destruction, of anti-creation”; the reason why the Nazis still fascinate is precisely this “anti-creation”, which is beyond all the “normal” vicissitudes of war, such as booty or patriotism or revenge. It fascinates, but it can never be understood. And I believe that is a good thing. If we attempt to reach complete understanding of Auschwitz, of Hitler, of the Holocaust, I believe the words “never again” may lose their meaning. The Holocaust is a sublime concept, sublime in the way that it is so horrifyingly big in its scope, its legacy and its meaning that, standing in front of it, it’s like looking into a large pit and being unable to see the bottom, confusing and terrifying the viewer. Any attempt to humanise such an inhuman event risks turning “never again” into “perhaps again”. The sheer incomprehensibility of these camps makes the name “tourist attraction” particularly galling. At the same time, I think it’s natural that human beings, who have been drawn to visiting sites of historical importance and bloodshed since ancient times, should want to see them. It is logical that, given that reading about it or watching films is often not enough to bring us close to the reality, coming as geographically close to the site as possible is the logical solution for anyone who wants to gain an understanding of the meaning of the place. Many visitors will feel a responsibility to visit these sites, to look the deepest depths of human depravity in the eyes and realise that it is of the utmost importance to guard against anything of this scope ever happening again. This, you might say, can be the only purpose of a visit to a concentration camp: a moralising and educational experience, through which the visitor pays tribute to the faceless mass that perished there. Or, alternatively, if one knows their relatives died in this or that camp, visiting it may be the ultimate form of paying tribute, if all that is left of them is the place where they died.
But, as we have seen, the documentary shows that not everyone comes to concentration camps to commemorate the tragic victims of the Holocaust. Again, this is only natural. For one thing, one’s cultural background plays a great role in one’s perception of the Holocaust. An American or Japanese tourist would likely not feel such a great attachment to these camps, because what took place there has not impacted their society and their culture in the way it has ours: they are far less likely to have lost family members, no matter how distant, in the death camps; they did not witness the impact of German occupation on the lives of their fellow citizens. This poses the question whether the camps actually “belong” to anybody, in the sense that there is one group of people who feels they have a larger claim to this history than others. Is it the Jews? The Polish people, or the Germans? And in behaving in an unrespectable way during your visit, are you insulting anyone in particular? Auschwitz has, after all, been absorbed by the tourism industry of nearby Kraków, where tours and excursions to the nearby death camp are organised daily. In Kraków you can also participate in the themed Schindler’s List-walk, and the former Jewish Quarter has become, to put it crudely, a tourist trap, where you can buy dug-up Nazi memorabilia from market stalls. Kraków’s claim to fame is that it was where Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List, which is probably the most famous film about the Holocaust ever made. Much can be said about this film and its influence, to which I will return later. With a past that is mainly connected to the horrors of World War II, it’s not surprising that this is what Kraków offers its visitors: incongruously, a holiday in Kraków is an inevitable reminder of the horrors that took place in and around it, and as a result, it makes sense to spend a day on an excursion to Auschwitz or to some other war site. Tourism is an industry, after all, and Nazis sell.
Naturally, the proximity of Auschwitz, Dachau and Sachsenhausen to large cities — Kraków, Munich and Berlin, respectively — plays a major role in their accessibility to tourists. Compared to these “day-trip destinations”, the sites of the death camps Sobibor and Treblinka, of which hardly anything remains, are much more remote and are therefore a much less logical destination to visit. It is clear that the most accessible places where the bloodshed was the worst — or rather, the places where it has become legendary — are the most popular among visitors today. It is the same with Omaha Beach, immortalised in Saving Private Ryan, which, in comparison to Sword or Gold Beach, where the British had a far less eventful landing, draws far more visitors. A documentary linked to Austerlitz I recently saw on Dutch television made it clear that the concentration camps are having great difficulty handling the number of visitors. An Auschwitz-representative was credited, in an interview with the newspaper NRC, with the incredibly callous statement: “When Auschwitz 1 gets too crowded, we transport everyone to Auschwitz 2, to make room.” It is nearly impossible to put restrictions on the behaviour of thousands people, even in a relatively small setting. The question then arises what constitutes disrespectful behaviour at these sites, and whether or not there is an etiquette for visiting a concentration camp. As one of the audience members at the discussion pointed out, visiting Auschwitz, even when one is mindful of its past and tries to be respectful, is a mental puzzle. When I visited Camp Westerbork in the summer a few years ago, I also noticed that it felt incongruous to be there: almost like beiing in a liminal space, caught between the past and the present. It doesn’t feel right that the sun is shining and the sky is blue, that there are flowers growing between the rusting train tracks, and, added to this, that there are people walking around in shorts and T-shirts, sipping water bottles and making small talk to a backdrop of barbed wire.
As the real nature of the camps will remain incomprehensible to us, our perception of what they were like is shaped by visual media that have portrayed them, Schindler’s List among them. We think of the place as desaturated: the grey skies, the brown mud, the wax-coloured skin of the inmates, the black bread clutched in their hands. But they, too, must have seen these blue skies, though they would have thought about them very differently. Films use colour schemes and framing to impart the feel of a place to an audience, and in the case of concentration camps, that vision cannot be harrowing and depressing enough to drive home its meaning. But that colourless and miserable view of the camps that has been imprinted on our brain distances us so much from the present-day sites that not only does it diminish one’s feeling of connection to the place, but it also disrupts our ability to think about the camps in a respectful way. It takes a serious effort to walk around there in a modern setting and think to yourself, “Am I being aware and respectful enough? Am I realising properly what took place here?” Viewing these sites safely from the future, we feel a voyeuristic tendency to superiority — seeing the past as “Other”, as more barbaric and morally inferior to the present — which easily turns behaviour disrespectful, and makes it easier to renounce any responsibility to that past. The camps-turned-museums face the difficult task of making their visitors aware and awakening a sense of responsibility in them: the way a visit to one of these sites is designed is paramount. Wandering around with an audio guide or simply reading the signs might work for some, but in many cases the addition of a museum to set the scene is essential. One of the biggest flaws of Austerlitz was, I thought, that it was unclear if the camps had succeeded in driving home their point. It would have been interesting to get a verbal response from visitors leaving the camp about how they felt after their visit, and if they felt they’d behaved respectfully.
It is difficult to determine what is respectful and what isn’t: it’s different for everyone. On a hot summer’s day in the south of Poland, visitors will naturally bring bottles of water, much as that may be perceived as an insult to those who arrived there and weren’t given a drop of water for days. You can hardly expect a cafeteria and a gift shop there, but still, people have to eat. Personally I find it hard to imagine that during the three-hour tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau one cannot go without food, but then I haven’t been there myself. There is an essential difference between the two minutes of silence we in the Netherlands reserve for thoughts about the tragic fate of Holocaust victims, a short amount of time which everyone can spare, and taking the time and the trouble to spend a whole day at Auschwitz, during which you have to conduct yourself in a respectful manner for several hours. Some people find that much more difficult than others, and certainly people have different ideas about what it means to be respectful. I am not trying to exonerate people who, as was mentioned during the discussion, urinate against the outer wall of a barracks, smoke cigarettes on the premises, or take a casual stroll over a closed-up mass grave. These are extremes of disrespectable behaviour, which might easily be prevented.
Photography and selfies
But what the discussion brought to the fore was mainly the power of the photograph. Photography and tourism are inextricably linked, and therefore it is natural that even when visiting concentration camps people bring their cameras. But how do we determine if photography in these places is an act of commemoration, or if it is another act of disrespect? There is a very fine line. On the one hand, seeing people spend more time trying to get a properly focused photograph of a piece of barbed wire than reading the sign at the gas chamber seems indicative that the photographer cares more about going home with a good shot than with an increased understanding of European history. On the other hand, they may just be looking for an artistic way of framing the place, to aid their own understanding of it. From my visits of war sites, I know that I cannot stop myself from scouting a location for good shots, even at the cemetery at Omaha Beach. The idea of “#auschwitz” stirs up controversy, because it suggests that our social media-focused culture has succeeded in trivialising even the Holocaust (as argued by Israeli artist Shahak Shapira in his controversial project Yolocaust [http://yolocaust.de/], which I find controversial in itself as he publicly shames random tourists without their consent). But surely people with a disrespectful attitude towards the Holocaust have existed for generations, long before the internet made it possible to share those opinions with the rest of the world. Besides, when I looked up #auschwitz on Instagram, for every selfie made by a couple visiting Kraków I saw a dozen photos of barbed wire, the gate at Birkenau, or train tracks, accompanied by descriptions that expressed a serious investment in the time spent there. #auschwitz, #neveragain.
What Austerlitz also highlighted, and what I do tend to agree with, is that it’s natural for us, modern visitors, to capture everything we experience in a photograph, but the inherent danger is that the photograph becomes the experience: that, as we see in Austerlitz, we tend to walk in, click-click-click our cameras, and leave the room again, without taking a pause to get the feeling of a place. Commemoration is different for everyone, but the film tried to emphasise that a fleeting visit, undertaken mostly for the photographs, is wrong in a place like this: it deserves more attention and more respect than that. Why do visitors come here if all they do is take selfies? They could just go to the beach for that. The selfie is a particularly interesting phenomenon, which has been on the rise in recent years. It’s quite different from the age-old art of self-portraiture: a selfie can be taken for artistic reasons, but is mainly taken to show other people that you are in a certain place at a certain time. While a photograph of a mountain top may be impressive, it’s only when you place yourself there that it becomes real, irrefutable proof that you were there. So is it appropriate to take a selfie with the sign saying Arbeit macht frei, as the people at Dachau did? And if you do, is it appropriate to smile? There are people who think that selfies are an example of increasing narcissism in our culture, and I think it is right to pose the question of whether or not selfie-taking is a form of commemoration. As you can’t exactly bring back a souvenir from Auschwitz, a photograph or a selfie is the next best thing. (You actually can bring back souvenirs from Omaha and Utah, in varying degrees of tastelessness.) I am guilty of doing the exact same thing at the D-Day beaches at Normandy, even posing with a smile and the V for Victory-sign at Utah. Why? It felt like a natural pose: I was on holiday with two good friends; we were in a place we had all been longing to see for some time, and we felt, more than anything, thrilled to be in such a historically important place. And there, at Utah, I experienced the same disconnected feeling that people also have at Auschwitz: the sunny beach, crowded with visitors, made it extremely difficult to envision the scene there on June 6th, 1944.
In my blog about my holiday in Normandy, I expressed my mixed feelings about the festivities that were taking place around the anniversary of D-Day. Indeed, the weekend was dubbed “the D-Day Festival”, and it was filled with activities: simulated parachute drops and landings at dawn in real Higgins boats; performances by bands playing music from the 1940s; ceremonies involving re-enactors, modern military personnel and veterans who fought at Normandy. The roads were jammed, with whole families packed into semi-original US army jeeps from the 1940s. Everywhere we went we saw people dressed up as American soldiers — mostly paratroopers, a result of the fame of Band of Brothers — or as army nurses. Back then, I thought it was very strange, and I was inclined to a similarly judgmental opinion: surely these people aren’t really grasping the history of this place, as we are. For some reason, I couldn’t reconcile the image of groups of men bulging out of their khakis and eating hot dogs in Ste-Mère-Église with an image of respectful commemoration. But then I thought, isn’t this what the Americans fought for, here in Europe? To liberate people from the yoke of fascism, and to return to everyone their right to exercise their liberty in any way they want? For some people, that means having the right (and the opportunity) to eat a hot dog whenever they feel like it. Besides, were we any different, buying Screaming Eagle patches to put on our coats and pay tribute to Band of Brothers? For us, and for many American visitors there, the trip was a type of pilgrimage, which human beings have been doing for centuries. For Americans, who have a limited number of battlegrounds they can visit, Normandy is hallowed ground: many of their family members perished there. Their last great war is the cornerstone of the American military hero mythos; this would all turn around after Vietnam. Commemoration for Americans appeared to be grandiose, accompanied by gift shops, hot dog stands, and plenty of American flags being waved about. The Dutch experience is very different, and it would be different for every other culture. In addition, it bears remembering that commemoration remains a very personal thing, happening mostly inside your head; and though our intentions were to be respectful, I’m sure that, posing in front of abandoned bunkers, from the outside we looked just like any other tourist walking around there.
In this environment of otherwise sleepy Norman towns being overrun with tourists and locals alike, thriving on World War II tourism and little else, it felt natural to take selfies and pictures. We felt free to join the queue to pose with the statue of Major Dick Winters (of Band of Brothers fame) that was erected as a memorial to all the officers leading the invasion. (Dick Winters, who wasn’t as brash and loud as his compatriots, as far as I am able to tell, really had to be persuaded to be immortalized like this.) But in posing with statues there is again a slight difference in connotation: I felt more natural posing with this statue of a victorious American than I would have done posing with one of the enormous Russian statues in Berlin, one of which features a soldier carrying a child and crushing a swastika under his boot. This last statue, which is located in Treptower Park, is positively grim, and therefore I was highly confused when I saw two fashion shoots taking place while I was there. To pose with the statue for the purpose of personal recollection is one thing, but what does it bring to a fashion shoot? By contrast, when I visited St. Petersburg earlier this year, I was surprised to find few reminders of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany. We visited one museum about the German siege of Leningrad, which paid tribute to the brave Russians who died by the dozens from hunger and disease during this time and exalted the snipers and other soldiers who were able to put one on the Germans under the terrible circumstances. I haven’t been to Moscow or to Volgograd, where there are likely be more reminders — the latter, formerly Stalingrad, has the largest memorial for the Red Army anywhere in the world; Treptower Park is the second largest — it is difficult to pinpoint based only on these experiences how the Russians today view the Second World War and Stalin’s leadership during that time.
The Russians seem to fall somewhere in the middle of what we might call the spectrum of commemoration, which has the D-Day Festival and Auschwitz as its extremes. If a demure attitude and a (perhaps forced) sense of responsibility accompany a visit to Auschwitz, a visit to Normandy around D-Day comes with all the uncritical praise and celebration of America’s Greatest Generation. Both locations, the German and Allied best kept secrets during the war, are now easily located by enormous signs on the side of the road (compared to Omaha and Utah, the beaches where the British and Canadians landed, Juno, Gold and Sword, were hardly or not signposted at all). The Colleville-sur-Mère cemetery, shrouded in fog drifting in from Omaha Beach, is enormous in its lay-out, and the rows of crosses stretching as far as the eye can see are overwhelming, almost dizzying, compounding the notion of just how many Americans died during the liberation of Europe, while in the concentration camps only the ovens and neatly covered-up mass graves give the visitor a sinister reminder that many died there. The cemetery actually had a code of conduct for visitors: no fake weapons were allowed. But last December, in Bastogne, I was surprised to find out that despite the fact that in all of Belgium there was commotion about a serious and real terrorist threat (level 3), we were startled more than once by the boom from a fake howitzer. Apparently it was not a problem to fire fake weaponry during mini-re-enactment battles.
Get the experience
But re-enactment is also a form of commemoration, and quite a widespread one; given the prestige that American soldiers still enjoy in Normandy, it is understandable that when impersonating the heroes, you are allowed to play with their weapons. Nowadays, as the war recedes further and further from memory, for children especially it is vital to make history come to life for them to understand and enjoy it: in many cases museums and historical institutes resort to creating an “experience”, a 4D-understanding of the events that no book or film can substitute. When I visited Westerbork, there was even talk of them restoring the now largely empty site and rebuilding the barracks as they were used during the war. Preserving what remains is one thing, but purposely rebuilding to give visitors the real experience seems jarring to me. The camps are, after all, not amusement parks. I talked to someone after the screening who had visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, where a simulator allows you to sit in a Higgins boat on June 6th, 1944, en route to the slaughter at Omaha Beach. No less so in Normandy: in the Dead Man’s Corner Museum we stepped inside a simulator that recreated the experience of flying across the channel, dropping paratroopers over the Cotentin peninsula, and getting shot down by German anti-aircraft guns before crashing to the ground. Can you imagine going to Dresden or Hiroshima and sitting in a simulator that allows you to drop incendiaries, or relive a citizen’s experience of the H-bomb exploding? Similarly, the Bastogne War Museum allowed us to witness the Battle of the Bulge, with guns rattling, explosions, crashing trees and snow everywhere, viewed safely from a wooden bench in the middle of the room. The Airborne Museum in Arnhem has a simulator that recreates the experience of walking the city streets during the Battle of Arnhem between the German and English forces. It’s quite obvious that these simulators are mainly aimed at young visitors, who, being used to films and video games, may otherwise have difficulty envisioning the events. The simulated battles taking place at or near the actual locations are simply a more grown-up version of this. There is an obvious difference between life-or-death fighting and pretending to be fighting, though I’ve been told by re-enactors that the surge of adrenaline is genuine. As I stated before, when it comes to concentration camps, being there geographically is often the only way to “really experience” a place like this. The idea of re-enactors in Auschwitz is and will hopefully always be ludicrous, but it’s clear that the tourism boom that followed on the heels of Schindler’s List, much like the one in Normandy following Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, has resulted in a desire to relive these narratives: to see where the action took place, and, if possible, to trace the footsteps of key figures.
The dangers of trivialisation
I want to return to Steven Spielberg’s films for a moment. Spielberg, who is Jewish himself, has succeeded in informing millions of people about key events in World War II — the Holocaust, Operation Overlord — and has done it in a particular way: by taking one small facet, one key figure, whose story inspired hope and redemption, and using it as a pars pro toto for the Jewish and the American sides of the war. We could question whether Nazis being reduced to cartoonish bad guys, as they often are, or on the other hand humanizing them, as Spielberg has done, is inherently problematic, but that’s a discussion for another time. The point is that these films have been enormously influential in shaping the tourism industry around World War II. Schindler’s List made millions of people all over the world rediscover the Holocaust as an urgent topic and turned Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes into superstars. Its main effect was that it made the Holocaust more comprehensible; just as watching a large catastrophe take place often makes people feel catatonic rather roused into action, watching a few Germans rousing Jews from the Kraków ghetto and seeing the machinery of Nazi command from up close is easier to comprehend, but it eclipses the fact that the same thing was happening in a hundred lesser-known cities at the same time, and, on many occasions, in a far more cruel manner. Spielberg is also the architect of Saving Private Ryan, that other famous World War II film, which does its own fair bit of mythologizing and romanticizing the war.
Where the problem lies, in my opinion, is that, in these films and in many others that have appeared since, the war stories that make a good story are often narratives of hope and redemption. And while concentration camps today try their best to restore the identity of the millions of anonymous victims who perished there, what remains at the forefront of people’s minds are Oskar Schindler and the 1,200 Jews he saved. It is my concern that as time marches on and the last survivors of World War II pass away, those whose story has not been told will return to oblivion, while what survives is a collection of vulgar, romanticised, sentimental narratives designed for mass consumption. A review I read recently of the film The Zookeeper’s Wife asked how hopeful narratives about the Holocaust are allowed to be. An interesting film must have conflict; therefore it is no surprise that even on the blackest page of history a tiny white dot is visible, even if that means that hopes raised in the beginning of the story are dashed in the end. But if all narratives about World War II end up with a redemptive arc — if they are all similar to Tom Hanks whispering to Matt Damon, with tears in his eyes, “Earn this…” — then we will soon end up with a skewed, oversimplified view of the war and especially of the Holocaust, where everything is reduced to winners and losers, heroes and villains.
The increase of the number of films about World War II in recent years can be explained by the fact that the further we become removed from the war, the more abstract and personal commemorating it becomes; thus people are constantly searching for new ways to keep the memory alive, searching for new and awe-inspiring stories to extract from it. We are even seeing notable “characters” from the war being lifted out of their context and placed into new settings, with interesting results. Hitler, the object of many satirical prints and Charlie Chaplin-films in his time, still pops up every now and then in satire and has become a caricature of himself. I believe there is a danger that the historical facts are being obscured when this happens, but I am also thinking of Er Ist Wieder Da, the novel (turned into a film) where Hitler wakes up in twenty-first century Berlin, and is believed by many to be a comic or an impersonator. This smart book opens the debate on the different ways in which Hitler could today gain popularity as a public figure, as well as on politics and modern German attitudes towards Hitler and the war. By contrast, I was outraged when I read an interview with YA-writer John Green, where he explained why he’d picked the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam as a setting for a romantic scene between the two main characters in his novel The Fault in Our Stars. The book and the film make a parallel between the main characters’ terminal cancer and the terrors of the Holocaust, which is problematic enough in itself. Green shrugs off inevitable controversy and explains:
Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants — she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable — but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people.
It may just be my view of Anne Frank as a cultural heritage icon and the quintessentially Dutch symbol of the Holocaust, but it is grating to say the least that she “just died of illness like most people”, completely ignoring the fact that this illness was typhus, which she contracted in Bergen-Belsen, a camp built with the exclusive aim of systematically killing her, her family, and her entire race. I find this insensitive treatment of Anne Frank worrying, occurring as it does in one of the most popular books to be read by teenagers in recent years. There has also been plenty of controversy surrounding a new Dutch play based on Anne Frank’s journal, with its poster being covered in anti-Semitic graffiti, showing that not everyone cherishes her and her victim-status.
These days, the stationary remains of concentration camps and battlegrounds must compete with the excitement and immersion that films and video games offer. It is then not so surprising, though still worrying, that many visitors have a dulled sense of what sort of behaviour is appropriate in such a place.
To conclude, war tourism is phenomenon that is constantly changing its shape. As can be said of most facets of the relationship between human beings and the war, it is not either good or bad. John Green will have thought to have established a meaningful connection between his characters and Anne Frank, giving his novel extra depth and reminding people of the horrors of war and the cruelty of life. That it was badly executed is my opinion. There will always be a majority who consider some tributes to the war to be in bad taste, whereas others won’t mind so much. It makes an enormous difference from whose perspective one looks at a war site, how the authorities have designed what a visit should look like and what it should teach you, what one’s cultural background is, and how the erosion from years of tourism has shaped the local etiquette. I hope sites of the Second World War will continue to make people aware of the world we are living in, a world where the strong still oppress the weak, where violence and inequality still reign, even if it’s no longer our streets that the fighting takes place in: a world shaped by the war in every sense, heralding, as it did, an age where total destruction of entire populations and cities became a reality, both at the hands of the Germans and the Americans. For my part, I will visit Auschwitz some day, and I’ll make sure to eat and drink enough in advance.
 The title refers to the novel Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, in which a man goes in search of the identities of his parents, who perished in the Holocaust. His quest takes him through the architecture and leftover landmarks of Europe, including former concentration camps. In the novel as in the film, the name Austerlitz is poignant because it sounds like Auschwitz.