What is worth preserving?

What is worth preserving?

Our attitudes toward ruins and historically significant buildings and cultural landscapes have a relationship to a wider conversation about what matters.

After the Second World War, destruction of heritage properties and landscapes was the norm in much of the world, a practice which in some cases continues today. Jane Jacobs among other played a role in questioning and in some cases diminishing this practice.

A reading of the Ontario Heritage Act, and a study of its applications in Toronto through the designation of heritage buildings, indicates that not all old buildings are worth preserving. In order to be designated, a building needs to meet criteria related to qualities such as historical and architectural features related to a community’s heritage. The application of the relevant criteria, in a particular circumstance, is ultimately a political decision involving City Council.

After the Reich: From the liberation of Vienna to the Berlin airlift (2007)

I’m reminded of Giles MacDonogh’s comments on the final page of the concluding chapter of After the Reich (2007).

MacDonogh remarks (p. 546), among other things, that “The Germans didn’t want to know their sullied history. Weary of the past they began to take pleasure in the destruction of their towns. Those few towns and villages and villages in Germany and Austria that had emerged unscathed were ripped down all the same in the 1950s and 1960s: the past had to go, to be replaced by an anodyne notion of comfort and prosperity. The myth of zero hour was taken to all their hearts.”

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition (2004) defines anodyne as, among other things, an adjective meaning not likely to cause offence or disagreement and somewhat dull.

MacDonogh adds: “The west [West Germany] was patched up quickly; buildings went up here there and everywhere to replace those destroyed in the war. A vast ugliness replaced the ruins.”

Dorothy Thompson

With regard to things that get preserved at least for a while in particular circumstances, MacDonogh (2007, p. 239) refers to a detail about the writer Dorothy Thompson’s postwar visit to the Dachau concentration camp.

“She was particularly stuck,” MacDonogh notes, “by her visit to Dachau, where she was able to view the commandant’s house and see that he possessed an edition of Goethe’s works, loved children, music, art, and literature, and lived, to all extents and purposes, a normal family life.”

Soldaten (2011) helps to provide a frame of reference for Thompson’s observation, as does Evil men (2013). James Tyler’s concept of the geographical imagination also comes to mind.

As well, as a June 21, 2013 article in The Atlantic highlights, the phenomenon of well-read, highly cultured Nazis continues to be a topic of discussion.

Some academic studies that I’ve come across in recent years attempt to situate the Second World War, and the years leading up to it, within the context of the fundamental features of European cultural history, nation-building, and political and economic development. Such studies are of interest. Among other things, some of them are relevant with regard to the antecedents and consequences of climate change. Such studies also have the potential to assist us, as a society, to fashion long-term solutions to current global challenges.


An August 21, 2013 Atlantic article describes the early development of concentration camps in Germany in the 1930s.

A sept. 2, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “Book Portrays Eichmann as Evil, but Not Banal.”

An Oct. 9, 2014 New York Review of Books article is entitled: “Heidegger in Black.”

The article notes: “Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. He was also a convinced Nazi.”

An Aril 28, 2915 New Yorker article is entitled: “Is Heidegger Contaminated by Nazism?”

An April 6, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “The System: Two new histories show how the Nazi concentration camps worked.”

An April 22, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Oskar Groening, former Auschwitz guard, describes camp in chilling detail at trial.”

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

A May 7, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘Forbidden Films’ Exhumes Nazi Poison From the Movie Vaults.”

The opening paragraphs read:

“The Third Reich was not only a totalitarian state but also a total multimedia regime. Seven decades after its fiery collapse, the embers remain — including some 1,200 feature films produced under Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Are they historical evidence, incitements to murder, fascist pornography, evergreen entertainments, toxic waste or passé kitsch? All of the above?

“Those questions are raised by ‘Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film,’ a documentary essay by the German filmmaker Felix Moeller, opening May 13 at Film Forum for a weeklong, free-admission run.

“Mr. Moeller, born 20 years after Germany’s defeat, is concerned about what he sees as youthful disinterest in the Nazi period and the concurrent rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe. He arrived at “Forbidden Films,” he said by telephone from Berlin, after making ‘Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,’ a documentary about the family legacy of Nazi Germany’s most celebrated director, Veit Harlan. Harlan’s most notorious film, “Jew Süss” (1940) — a period melodrama in which a Jewish moneylender connives to take control of the duchy of Württemberg — is as incontrovertibly anti-Semitic as it was enormously popular.”

[End of excerpt]

Also of interest: Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010).


2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Colleen O’Marra comments:

    Dorothy Thompson’s observations of the so-called ‘normal
    life’ (re: their love of art, music and literature) led by the
    gatekeepers of the death camps makes what they did even harder to
    understand or forgive. No mass hysteria here but the murderous deeds
    of thugs, indeed a nation sold on the premise that they were the uber
    race. A ‘sullied’ history is an understatement. (Colleen M. O’Marra)

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    It’s a topic that many people have discussed, including the authors (e.g. of Soldaten 2010; Evil Men 2013; and Genocide and the geographical imagination 2012) I’ve mentioned in the post.

    I find the discussions of interest, in seeking to understand something that is a challenge to comprehend.


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