The Democratic Challenge to War Memorials

“Patriotism, honour and courage.” These are the words our government would like us to repeat this year as we record the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Education Secretary Michael Gove, troubled by the apparent lack of nationalist fervour when we remember the Great War, implores the public to understand that Britain’s role was marked by ‘nobility and courage’, meanwhile Mayor of London, Boris Johnson revises Britain’s involvement as reactionary and defensive, ‘overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression.’  If those in Government seem anxious to control public perceptions of a war fought 100 years ago it is because of the implications it holds for present and future conflicts. The symbol of the poppy has become an effective tool for galvanising tacit public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year, as conservatives parade triumphalist versions of WWI through the media1, it seems worth thinking about those officially sanctioned narratives of war closer to home, those cemented in the centre of every village, town and city in the country.

Wear a poppy

War Memorials serve a number of complex, interrelated functions both public and personal. They hold an important ritual purpose which is tied to the individual and collective process of mourning. Yet they also always constitute a cultural discourse: operating as a force of identification for communities and as a means of defining and structuring our thinking about war. For a nation engaged in war, memorials and the rituals surrounding them play an important role in working to control and limit how war is represented, remembered, understood: ‘great monuments are erected like dikes, opposing the logic and majesty of authority against all disturbing elements,’ wrote Georges Bataille in 19292. Borrowing aesthetic authority from classical forms and possessing a phallic mastery through vertical height, the public monument is as much a declaration of state power as it is a memorial to the fallen.


The noise and movement that surrounds monuments often renders them largely invisible, but while some of their original political significance has faded, their status as sacred, inviolable objects testifies to their continued psychological presence. Think of the furious reaction in the press to the photograph of Charlie Gilmour hanging from the flag on the Cenotaph during the student protests in 2011, or the outrage in 2009, when a student in Sheffield, drunk out of his mind on a bar crawl was photographed pissing on a war memorial.

Student protest at London Cenotaph

Behind the explicit signification of the monument is an ideological function which works to mythologize war as ‘natural’ and ‘just’ and mystify or obscure the power relations that underpin it – yet pissing on these objects does not go very far in challenging the sanitised and uncritical versions of history they represent. How then can we force monuments to speak of the repressed realities of war, to open them up to critical questioning? The following examples of ‘counter’, ‘anti’ and ‘temporary’ monuments point to some possibilities…

Counter Monuments

Abstract modernism first provided an alternative aesthetic vocabulary to the realist depictions of brave soldiers, upstanding generals or huddling civilians. Memorialising the Holocaust led to a decisive shift in the design of public monuments as many artists felt traditional forms of representation were no longer viable. Sol Le Witt’s Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews is a minimalist monument to the Shoah in Hungary; a black void that states absence not presence, a pedestal with no statue.

Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews, Hungary

In a similar way, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenman and completed in 2004, refuses any overt symbolism, relying instead on minimalist modernist design to expose the work to a wider variety of interpretations and emotional responses.

 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

One of the most well known of these counter monuments is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, constructed in 1982 in Washington DC, which represents a significant challenge to patriotic modes of mourning. Lin’s design, dubbed an ‘antiphallus’, favoured a chevron shaped wall, excavated into a hollow in the earth so that the entire memorial is below grade. Visitors encounter a generation of names engraved on the reflective black stone surface, which they are invited to touch. The memorial provides a therapeutic social encounter in which groups of visitors see themselves reflected alongside others so that the wall is never encountered alone. Lin’s design was met with intense opposition in the media and from some veteran groups; as one member of the public who opposed it said: ‘This memorial focuses too much on suffering and loss. We have Arlington Memorial Cemetery for that.’3

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Washington

In their rejection of the conventions of verticality, representation and monumentalism, these counter-monuments seem to open up questions about war rather than suppress them.

Anti Monuments

In Trafalgar Square in London in 1985 Polish artist Krzyzstof Wodiczko projected an image of an intercontinental ballistic missile wrapped in barbed wire on Nelson’s Column and tank treads under the bronze lions beneath.

Nelson's Column

The projection explicitly inscribes the aggressive machinery of war on a statue which works to deny its presence. A more recent project, War Veteran’s Vehicle, takes a traditional military vehicle and arms it with a powerful projector and speakers which project veterans’ testimonies onto the walls of major buildings to create a public space for the their marginalised voices to be heard. Veterans describe the trauma of those experienced in war and the difficulties of reintegrating back into civilian life.

Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord project speaks of another unspoken reality of war: sexual violence against women. The subject of her work is the rape of 30,000 to 50,000 Muslim, Croatian and Bosnian women by Serbian soldiers during the Bosnian war. In 1996 Holzer directed a laser projection onto the ninety one metre high Völkerschlachtdenkmal, a memorial to the 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig. The projected texts are anonymous and shift from the positions of victim, rapist and observer, thus destabilising the viewing position and preventing any easy moral standpoint. Unlike Wodiczko’s projections, which are designed to form an ‘organic counter connection’ with the monument, here the laser appears to sear the red words violently into the stone surface, attacking both the silence of the monument and our complicity.

Volkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig

Temporary Monuments

It is also important to remember that individuals and families affected by war have always memorialised their suffering in less permanent ways than the stone monument – spontaneous collages of flowers, notes and photos have recently begun to fill Maidan Square in Ukraine, the site of the anti-government protests in which over 77 were killed. These modest gestures speak of the personal loss and suffering that violent conflict brings, they are fragile, temporary and immediate.

Boots, Kiev

Engaging critically with war monuments is significant because it is closely linked to larger questions of democracy – who controls the meanings of our shared history?  Counter monuments, anti monuments and temporary monuments can assert public space as political and contest the right of the state to impose its meanings on the symbolic space of our cities. This year more than ever, the verticality of the war memorial must be confronted by horizontal counter-histories. Monuments and memorials can provide perfect sites to focus on the difficult and unpalatable aspects of war and remember resistance to it.  The point is not just to confront the repressive psychological and ideological operations of war memorials but to challenge the waging of wars in general.

AS | @stonehim

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  • 1. Radical history groups around the country have been organising initiatives to resist the onslaught of patriotic propaganda through disseminating subversive histories. Get involved with Remembering the Real World War 1 groups in London and Bristol.
  • 2. Quoted in Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. by Betsy Wing (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1989), p. 47.
  • 3. Quoted in Catesby Leigh, ‘Washington’s Plague of Anti-Monuments: The Nation’s Capital is Sprouting Memorials that Elevate neither Beauty nor Truth’, The American Enterprise (March 2000), p. 42.