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Preserving Repugnant Heritage

A January 2016 image of the Calais "Jungle" (image Malachy Browne).

A January 2016 image of the Calais “Jungle” (image Malachy Browne).

This week few if any heritage planners have proposed a preservation or placemaking plan for Frances’ Calais migration camp.  The camp popularly dubbed the “jungle” was being dismantled this week, its host of makeshift structures to be removed after hosting perhaps 7000-8000 migrants at its peak.  Migrants from various reaches of Africa and Asia have set up temporary camps around the port city of Calais since 1999, with camp residents often hoping to continue on to nearby BritainThe Guardian reported at the end of 2014 that at least 15 people had died in Calais that year, and this year the camp has become an increasingly unpleasant symbol of migration woes.  In the wake of Brexit Calais uncomfortably illuminates lapses in humanitarian rhetoric and state policy disagreements over the accommodation or exclusion of a stream of people escaping countries such as Syria and Iraq.

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

Administrators’ commitment to dismantle the camp (by hand rather than bulldozer or fire, to avoid conflicts from earlier camp displacements) seems to confirm the camp’s significance.  Perhaps for most observers Calais can lay no claim to be a heritage site since it is an ephemeral place in our midst, yet Calais may be just the sort of place worthy of heritage contemplation—that is, a material presence inducing contemporary anxiety and rooted in a contentious history.

The silence over Calais stands in opposition to the flurry of heritage scholars advocating the preservation of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace and earliest home in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  Both Calais and Braunau share a repugnancy that revolves around their unpleasant stories and unresolved effects.  Hitler holds a persistent grip on our collective imagination and exerts an especially unsettling effect on right wing extremists; Calais lays bare the crisis of humanitarian idealism that risks being undone by state passivity and xenophobia. In both cases some planners hope that razing these reviled spaces will eliminate the public discussions they spark, but there seems to be a more productive discussion harbored in their preservation than in their absence. Read the rest of this entry

The Trinkets of Evil: Eva Braun’s Underwear and Dark Heritage

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop.  The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva BraunThe provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil.  The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.

Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world.  Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral.  Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people.  It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.”  Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good.  Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil. Read the rest of this entry