Memory and Oblivion

12.06.2012 § 3 Comments

History knows hundreds of cases of historical facts being forgotten or purposefully shuffled towards oblivion. The purpose of history is, in my mind, to know where one stands by knowing where one stood and moreover to learn from past mistakes and appreciate the good and the bad of previous historical contexts.

Scavenging of Building Materials

Preslav, the first Christian capital of the Bulgarian Empire, was a vast city of white marble and stone in the north-east of the country. It contained palaces and the Golden (Round) Church, a unique Christian temple with a circular design that reflected the Bulgarians’ knowledge of the 12 constellations. As the capital faded from prominence in the 11th century, it was abandoned. Then, for centuries, the ruins of the city were picked clean by local residents, melting marble blocks, columns and statues to make quicklime for their huts nearby.

A similar erosion of heritage can be seen in St. Andrews in Scotland, where weeds grow inside the meagre ruins of an enormous Catholic cathedral, whose vaulted ceiling timbers and hewn stone were used as building materials for the entire area. Both these examples predate the notion of historical conservation and reflect the unfortunate, yet understandable, recycling of the old into the new.

Preservation of Literary Heritage

The next set of examples concerns the preservation, or lack thereof, of written knowledge. Denmark’s Kongelige Bibliotek (Royal Library) has the richest collection in Scandinavia, with historical manuscripts dating back to untold ages. Built in 1648 (while the Bulgarian people were tilling their fields, ignorant of their proud history), it became an arc of knowledge, collecting books and manuscripts from all over Europe and holding every single book ever printed in Denmark. A notable example is one of six surviving copies of fencemaster Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch, a brilliantly illustrated 300-page combat manual that hinted at without revealing the duelling, engineering and siegecraft skills of the enigmatic Talhoffer.

In contrast, in 1393 the libraries, scriptoria and monasteries of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s medieval capital, were torched by the conquering Ottomans. Individual manuscripts trickled out to the surviving neighbour kingdoms of Moldavia, Serbia and the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. A book of crucial significance in particular, the Tetraevangelia (The Four Gospels) of Ivan Alexander, written in 1356 during the reign of the second-last ruler of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, found its way through Moldavia to the sanctuary of the St. Paul monastery on Mount Athos. Mount Athos, an rocky outcropping on the Aegean riddled with ancient monasteries, was conquered by the Ottomans along with the rest of the Byzantine empire, but was spared and given partial autonomy, enabling the survival of thousands of priceless volumes…and the neglect and eventual destruction of many at the hands of careless monks.

The English collector Robert Curzon, as part of the Victorian era push of the British Empire to collect the treasures of the world (often, as is the case with the Acropolis marbles, ensuring their survival throughout the ages), found himself in St. Paul’s monastery in 1837. He performed a small service for the abbot, who promised him a reward. Glancing at a pile of waterlogged books stacked up to hold up a ceiling beam, Curzon picked the top one and took it back to England with him. That’s how the Tetraevangelia of Ivan Alexander was saved from supporting ceiling beams in a monastery and became part of a library collection: that of the British Museum, later the British Library (as Add. MS 39627). How many other books were lost in the pyres of Tarnovo, or used for kindling in the monasteries of Athos, or scraped clean for ledgers, is unknown and unthinkable. The loss of statehood for Bulgaria in the 14th century meant the inevitable loss of the vast written collections of its culture.

Purposeful Eradication

When the Reyes Católicos of Spain conquered the final Moorish outpost in Europe, the gleaming fortress of Granada, in 1482, they inherited its opulent administrative palace, Alhambra, as well as the Emir’s summer palace, the Generalife. No orders of summary destructions of these buildings were given. A Catholic convent was erected beside the Alhambra to exert Christian dominance over the city, but the palace itself was left untouched. Not specifically preserved either, the Alhambra suffered the effects of time, with American historian Washington Irving describing a still-standing but desolate and weather-worn cavern on his visit in 1829. Throughout the world, in Istanbul, Rome, Athens, traces of the past and even of rival civilizations are preserved or left to their own devices, and very rarely destroyed.

The mausoleum (bottom centre), the Bulgarian National Bank (left), Headquarters of the Communist Party (top left) and the Royal Palace (right).

Enter Bulgaria. Not ancient, stateless Bulgaria, but the present-day sovereign republic of Bulgaria, keeper of millennia of knowledge and history, Thracian, Roman, Ottoman and Slavic. When Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov (also a leader of the ComIntern and a world-class communist theorist) died in Moscow in 1949, his body was put on a train bound for Bulgaria. In the time it took to arrive, approximately 6 days, a mausoleum was built in the centre of Sofia to house his remains. Similar to Lenin’s and later Stalin’s, the mausoleum was to display the embalmed body of Dimitrov. Despite being a somewhat macabre reflection of the personality cult in 40’s and 50’s communism, the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum was a prominent Sofia landmark for decades. Its foundations were built to withstand nuclear blasts, and the command centre bunker of the Bulgarian government was located directly below, linked through underground tunnels to Communist party headquarters and the Council of Ministers building.

After the fall of the socialist government in 1989, much of what was built during the preceding 45 years was neglected or destroyed. This included prosperous factories sold off to foreign investors for pennies, the dissolution of Balkan Airlines, Bulgaria’s national air carrier, and the renaming of thousands of streets to disassociate them from their Communist-era namesakes. Finally, in 1999, the government of Ivan Kostov decided to tear down the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum. Dimitrov’s body had been removed and buried in 1990, and the mausoleum remained in the centre of Sofia, a reminder of Bulgaria’s past. It had since been used several times as the backdrop for outdoor performances of historical operas such as Aida. Despite the opposition of two thirds of Bulgarians who favoured converting the building to some other purpose (performance venue, art gallery, museum), the government was determined to tear it down. It took four consecutive blasts which shattered the windows of the surrounding government offices and covered the core with dust and smoke, and finishing work by bulldozers to level the mausoleum. The total time it took was about six days, the same amount of time it had taken to erect the building. In the years since, the mausoleum’s location has stood empty and unused, in the heart of the capital.

Despite the contentious role of Communism in Bulgarian history, despite the argument about the relative importance of Georgi Dimitrov, despite all the yammering about the oppressive totalitarian past, nothing justifies the purposeful destruction of a historical artifact of such importance.

The Point of Remembrance

Remembrance isn’t always about pride and joy. Remembrance is sometimes about pain, and loss, and the reminder of past mistakes. I was reminded of this on the boardwalk at the newly built Vancouver convention centre. Alongside plaques commemorating the founding of the city and the construction of the Marine building, at one time the tallest in the Commonwealth, stands a plaque describing the Komagata Maru incident.

In 1914, a steamer carrying some 350 immigrants from India with valid Commonwealth documents anchored in the Burrard Inlet of Vancouver harbour. The passengers, men, women, and children, were denied entry, prevented from disembarking and spent two miserable months as hostages to their ship before being expelled and returned to India. The official reason, that the ship had not come directly from India, was masking the deep-seeded suspicion and xenophobia of the government towards non-white immigrants. This is by all accounts a shameful incident in Canada’s history, and yet, it features prominently on the Vancouver boardwalk, with an inscription that highlights the importance of remembering shameful times and actions so we can learn from them. This, I think, is an example all nations should follow, attempting to clarify, display and therefore learn from their history.

On that note, I leave you with the following conundrum: Bulgaria was on the side of Nazi Germany in WWII. It hardly sent any troops in battle and it was only one of two European countries to refuse to deport its Jewish population to concentration camps, but it was still on the wrong side of a world conflict. Should the Bulgarian aviators who died defending Sofia from English and American bombers be celebrated or forgotten? Should the men who fell fighting in the Balkan wars (the second of which was started by the imperialistic ambitions of the Bulgarian king) be remembered this year at the centennial of the conflict, or should their memory be swept under the rug?

Even if all history is not worth being proud of, all history is worth remembering. And, in the case above, I respect and salute the men who died for my country, regardless of the historical judgement passed on the conflicts they fought in.

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§ 3 Responses to Memory and Oblivion

  • […] the street, beyond a cramped parking lot, you can find the grassy area that used to be the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, torn down by the government of Ivan Kostov in […]

  • Dancho says:

    I would tend to agree that defenders in an armed conflict should be honored. Their purpose, after all, is in part to preserve the lives of civilians caught in the conflict. I would also think that even the troops who died on the attack while fighting for the “wrong” side deserve remembrance, but honoring them would be disrespectful of the suffering they caused in the countries where they fought…

    However, what I do not agree with is that the leadership that caused the wars, and was responsible for these soldiers to die in the first place *deserve* anything other than derision. I think I understand why Ivan Kostov’s government bombed and bulldozed the monument to communism. Something tells me that even in 1999, it was a symbol of a past a certain portion of the Bulgarian population longed to return to. It was also a thorn in the eye of the many tens of thousands of (forgotten) people who suffered under communism.

    Whereas I agree that permanently hanging a giant pink pig’s snout off the mausoleum would have been better, bulldozing it was the second best thing. 😉

  • Infinitely more interesting and meaningful than “fun, tourist stuff”. You are right – all history is worth remembering. It is, afterall, contained in each and every one of us.

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