In autumn 1944, Norddal, in the north of Troms County, was occupied by German army forces in retreat. They had brought with them an unknown number of Soviet prisoners, who were distributed among four prisoner-of-war (POW) camps. When the war ended, the camps were abandoned and their stories almost lost in time.
The soldiers named the camps after four Austrian cities: Spittal, Mallnitz, Gastein, and Kitzbühel.
In his talk, The heritage of war and the discourse of sustainability, Ingar Figenschau, a fellow at the University of Tromsø, painted a picture of a deserted landscape. It seemed untouched by humans until you looked closely at it, and then you saw what was left—the ruins that once formed the walls and foundations of the defence line. Objects and things lie scattered around the area, crumbling with the force of time.
The ruins remind us how much of our history consists of things, Figenschau explains. Such things, he says, hold their own memories that both witness and correct the canonized version of history:
– In the POW camps lie memories of a battlefield that never experienced battle, but which is marked by war nevertheless—a war that illustrates the ‘banality’ and the ‘everydayness’ of the war and acts as a material resistance against the established grand narrative.
Things are influential reminders
In the camp called Kitzbühel, Figenschau says, you can find fragments of objects that are alien to the surrounding nature, but to people who wander around these areas, they can tell a foreign story. Broken tin cans remind us that people used to live here: people who needed food and nutrition, and who tried to stay alive in the harsh conditions. Figenschau says,
– They are recognizable everyday elements that have not changed that much over time, but the context gives them a concrete and creepy backdrop.
Tin cans could also be a positive element for a soldier who is stationed far from safe and familiar surroundings, and thus remind us of the feeling of homesickness. Even though they are now at rest in the landscape, and often defined as hazardous waste, they are a reminder of the smell and taste of food.
The metal linings of the German army helmets remind us that these peoples’ lives were in danger, and that they lived in a time of uncertainty. They remind us that they were part of a military force, and so they lacked protection and safety.
The remains of helmets remind us not only of the reality of the war, but also about German industry, Figenschau observes:
– They also possess concrete memories through production stamps that certify the production site, year, quality, and helmet size. It is also the experience of finding such concrete material memories, far from the war's ‘main arena’, which makes the experience of Kitzbühel much more concrete and personal.
Kitzbühel gives people a personal and intimate encounter with fragmented objects, which conflict with the established view that the war is over:
– Can you really say that the war is over? All the things and structures that have survived the war—the soldiers, the prisoners, and the ideology. The past exists in many ways in our present day, precisely through things and structures.
No place in the greater narrative
In his talk, Figenschau presented parts of Report No. 16 presented to the Storting (parliament), Living with our Cultural Heritage. It states:
‘The aim of the plan of action is to stop the decay and the loss of valuable cultural heritage. The policy will help cultural heritage and cultural environments to provide future generations with knowledge and experiences. The government wants cultural heritage to be retained as valuable resources and [to] help create value in living communities’.
– The practice for managing cultural monuments often implies restoring the environments to the state they were in at the time they were first built.
Cultural sights get stripped of their present markings, of old age and deterioration, and are presented as a reality we believe to have existed. In this process, things that illustrate the ‘everydayness’ of historical times are often neglected.
Figenschau says that the discourse of modern heritage does not tend to include things and their heritage. Things are often considered ‘leftovers’—unwanted objects in the process of restoring and preserving cultural monuments:
– Things are often discarded from their surrounding environment so that the area can represent a reality that once was. The memories of a space are decorated to tell the story of an already interpreted past.
Figenschau further explains that a widespread approach to cultural monuments and cultural environments focuses on concept metaphors that reflect an anthropocentric view. Words such as sustainability, utility value, user resource, and representativeness are often used when discussing heritage:
– This language is problematic in several ways, as it not only turns concrete cultural heritage into a human-controlled process, but it also promotes cultural heritage as an economic and socio-political resource, in which usefulness is emphasized.
Figenschau wonders if this is the right way to view our heritage.
Read also: Life among Soviet ruins
The value of decaying things
– As the veterans of the Second World War are lost to old age it has become more important than ever to relocate their experiences and stories in the collective memory.
The nationalistic angle of Norwegian opposition will always have a special place in the dissemination of our history, but stories of suffering and defeat must also come forth.
Spittal, Mallnitz, Gastein, and Kitzbühel tell the stories of a war that many of us may not have heard of. They tell stories of harsh conditions in the northern Norwegian cold, where torture and despair probably filled the lives of the inhabitants.
Mallnitz, where conditions were the worst, tells the story of how 143 lives ended in a mass grave. Figenschau says,
– Of these, 81 died of starvation and typhus, 54 had been shot, eight had been beaten to death, and three showed clear signs of cannibalism.
Sights like these cannot be compared to other aspects of Norwegian heritage, Figenschau continues, such as Brygge in Bergen, or Heddal stave church. Unlike them, war sights are often charged with negative associations, as reminders of violence, injustice, and fear.
As these are the aspects of our history that we are now trying include in our cultural heritage, Figenschau asks if the best way to tell these stories will be through restoration. Perhaps we should change the past to show an interpretation of its reality:
– Things live on in their own dynamic and natural form of conservation.
Things can remind us of the everyday life in a time that is now perceived to be gone. It brings the past closer, and leaves the interpretation of their stories to the viewer.
According to Figenschau, leaving cultural sights as they are today can make history subjective, and they may be intriguing in ways that ‘restored’ sights cannot. And so, perhaps, Spittal, Millnitz, Gastein, and Kitzbühel can tell us more about our past without being rebuilt. This would show a recent history in decay, but it would be one that includes all that was left behind.
Read more about the CAS research project After Discourse: Things, Archaeology, and Heritage in the 21st Century here.
Camilla Kottum Elmar