Memorialization a Key Element in Dialogue Over Missing Persons

Nicolas Moll in ICMP HQ in Sarajevo

Memorialization is a key element in any public dialogue over missing persons, Dr Nicolas Moll said during a seminar held at the International Commission on Missing Persons in Sarajevo in November. He stressed that the location, design and wording of memorials pose complex challenges to societies seeking to heal wounds arising from conflict and human rights violations.

“Until the nineteenth century, memorialization tended to be focused on monarchs and military victories,” Dr Moll said. “Even in the nineteenth century the names of soldiers were not important but this changed with World War One, when individual names – including the names of the missing – became important.”

Dr Moll cited the Thiepval Memorial in Northern France, which lists the names of more than 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose remains were never identified following the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The period immediately after World War One saw a huge surge in memorialization, and the emergence of public debate over the nature and suitability of monuments. While a preponderance of war memorials from this period celebrate “heroic and patriotic sacrifice”, a substantial number also focus on the waste and tragedy of war.

The fundamental change in the nature of warfare in the middle of the twentieth century – when the ratio of military to civilian casualties was reversed – is reflected in a change in the nature of memorialization. When a preponderance of war casualties were soldiers, most monuments had a military theme. Since World War Two, an average of ten civilians have died in conflict for every combatant – and the nature of memorialization has changed accordingly.

Memorialization can have a direct bearing on efforts by relatives to assert their right to locate and identify the missing. In Argentina, for example, the practice of exhibiting photographs of the missing on busy thoroughfares has served as a monument, as a challenge to the authorities, and as a way of soliciting information about missing persons.

Two monuments erected in Germany in the last 30 years testify to the role of memorialization in the long process through which societies attempt to come to terms with the past.

The Monument Against Fascism, designed by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz and erected in Hamburg in 1986, began as a 12-meter high pillar. Members of the public were invited to write on the base and after several years, when there was no more space for writing, the monument was lowered into an exhibition gallery underneath: several years later, it was lowered again. It has now been lowered completely from its original level and can be viewed through a glass screen in the gallery wall.

“One of the things this shows is the fragility of memory: memory can disappear,” Dr Moll said. “The monument is interactive – what’s important are the people around the monument and how people deal with what is being memorialized.”

Dr Moll also cited the 2008 Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold. “This is about Germany commemorating a crime committed by Germany,” he said, pointing out that memorialization increasingly plays a role in attempts by countries to confront historical crimes in which they may have been a perpetrator rather than a victim. Another example is the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, designed by artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and architect Julian Bonder, which commemorates the role played by ports on the western French coast in the lucrative Atlantic slave trade.

Dr Moll referred to the example of Sarajevo, where an estimated 10,000 people were killed during the three and a half year siege during the 1990s principally as a result of sniping and artillery fire from Serb forces, and where there is an initiative to erect a monument to Serb citizens who were killed inside the city on account of their ethnicity. “If that were to happen it would be the first time that a town in the region memorialized victims of a crime committed by the majority community,” Dr Moll said. “And this would be a very important step in developing a constructive self-critical culture of remembrance.”

Monuments are just one part of memorialization,” he added. “Memorialization includes visits, seminars, conversations, testimonies, archives, books, art, film, poetry, the Internet, Facebook and so on. The culture of remembering is a culture – a living thing.”

The two-day seminar was organized by ICMP and the Regional Coordination of Families of Missing Persons. Nicolas Moll is a historian and Coordinator of the “Memory Lab” platform.