European Memory Zones: Consciousness, Conflict, Continental Drift

By Stephen Barber


Crisscrossing eastern and central Europe, I realised that, below its homogeneous corporate carapace, it remained intricately layered by the fissures of conflict, its parameters and peripheries still determined by the arbitrary psycho-geography imposed, with nonchalance, by the victors of Europe in 1945, in the Cecilienhof mansion in Potsdam, and by their successors.

From the perspective of some omniscient eye, able to concertina time into the rush of a condensed film sequence, the cities of Europe might appear as a dispersed arrangement of igniting matchheads, accelerating in destruction as time went on, and now only momentarily stilled, as though awaiting the momentum for a more intensive conflagration. In that moment of silence, the fissures of conflict took the opportunity to spread outwards, in new manifestations of the mutations of colonial history, more powerful and virulent for their virtuality, creating new landscapes of warfare in the marshlands at the interstice of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where, in the 1950s, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger had tracked the already-vanishing corporeal gestures and water-bound vectors of the inhabitants of that terrain in flux, disappearing and deliquescing at the same moment that it became, for the first time, mapped: a prescient terrain, for the impositions on memory on the contemporary moment (Freud noted, in the course of a dialogue with Einstein, in 1933, on the unlikelihood of peace, that ‘it is war that brings vast empires into being’.)

In the grounds of the Soviet war memorial in Bratislava, below a colossal obelisk dedicated to the Red Army’s westward transit across Europe in 1945, I looked at the lines of gravestones, almost all of them marked with the same date, 4 April 1945. Many of them carried photographs that had been embossed into the surfaces of the gravestones, of the young faces of the combatants, Ukrainian shock-troops, male and female, that had been killed in the assault on the city. From the perspective of the hill on which the memorial had been constructed, out across the plain to the west, beyond the vast Petrzalka housing-estate, the city of Vienna was almost visible in the clear air – and there, in that city’s vast cemetery, similar photographic traces marked the phantom presences of the combatants who had survived the assault on Bratislava, and moved on across the void landscape of Europe, before being killed in the assault on the next city, Vienna, one week later.

Those dates appeared as deep puncture points inflicted in time on the undifferentiated surface space of Europe. In the city below, at that moment, the President of the United States of America was giving an open-air speech in the main square, before a huge and exultant crowd, promising that the US would now help Slovakia build up its military power. And all around that square, immense digital-image screens transmitted ultra-high-resolution corporate animations lauding the multinational conglomerates of Europe, a billion pixels expended every second. In extreme contrast to those digital screens, the faded photographs of the combatants on those gravestones possessed the lowest possible resolution still capable of projecting the human face to the eye, and still registering their presence, for an instant, at least, on their viewer’s retinal photoreceptors. The emulsion of the photographs had cracked, from cold or age or intentional damage or some unknown factor, and the corporeal content of many images had seeped out almost entirely from the enamel casings which anchored them to the gravestones.

But, in their stillness, they retained a hold on time, and on the resonance of the image, as revelatory shards of memory, almost lost within the image-frenzy of contemporary Europe. If those photographs of evanescing faces, seized before their collective moment of death, could be transplanted onto the digital-image screens that surmount the banalised city, and projected there, supplanting the habitual corporate animations, then an optimal site could be created – a memory zone – in which all images, all languages of warfare could be expunged, to the last ash or ghost.

Napoleon notoriously responded with horror (or, like Kurtz, with horror, and again, with horror) to reports of the Edenic island of Okinawa, at the periphery of the world, south of the main islands of Japan, whose inhabitants, he was told, possessed no weapons, and had never known conflict or warfare; like much of Europe, the entire surface of that island, with its city, Naha, was razed by warfare in the final battles of 1945, and rendered into oblivion as a near-emptied terrain of ashes. The film image remains the supreme carrier of the traces of all of the manifestations of horror, in its exhaustive archiving of a three-way confrontation, between the terrain of the city, its emanations of conflict, and the human body: film forms the medium of an enduring obsession with recording the impacts of that confrontation, most tellingly present in the films of the ruined cities of Europe, in 1945, shot from above, in majestic aerial tracking shots, that demonstrated to the viewers of those images that the film image and the eye had now become allied, permanently conjoined media, in projecting the pivotal fragility of Europe’s cities.

Stephen Barber is a cultural topographer, counter-cultural activist and underground historian. He is published by Creation Books, Reaktion and Berg.