Today, Raphael Lemkin is best known for coining the term genocide and introducing it to international law. What is less well known is that Lemkin initially proposed the existence of two different — yet deeply intertwined — forms of genocide: physical and cultural. Lemkin described physical genocide as the systematic destruction of a group of people, while cultural genocide described the large scale destruction of a group’s cultural artifacts. Inspired by a book of the same name, the documentary “The Destruction of Memory” focuses in on Lemkin’s concept of cultural genocide, exploring its crippling effects, its destructive role in enabling physical genocide and how frequently it has been overlooked and ignored.
“Physical genocide,” the term proposed by Lemkin, was almost universally accepted as a crime against humanity after the Second World War and still closely aligns with the U.N.’s current definition of genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” However, Lemkin’s conception of cultural genocide has had a much blurrier history. Although attempts were made after the war to label the destruction of cultural artifacts as a war crime, these were shot down by the allies, who feared that accusations of cultural genocide might be leveled against their treatment of native populations or their indiscriminate bombing of Germany and Japan.
The 1954 Hague Convention made some progress on the issue, declaring the destruction of cultural property during periods of warfare to be illegal, but this seemingly far-reaching step was largely counteracted by a clause that allows such destruction if it is a “military necessity.” As the documentary notes, the fact that “military necessity” has never been rigorously defined leaves a major loophole open. In fact, the first successful trial on charges of the destruction of cultural property wasn’t until the aftermath of the Bosnian War, nearly 50 years after the Hague Convention.
“The Destruction of Memory” argues that continued slowness to punish or prevent large-scale destruction of cultural property has had disastrous consequences. As director Tim Slade notes in one press release, “links between the killing of people and the killing of their identity are not necessarily being made.” Examining a series of case studies — the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Balkan Wars of the 90s — the documentary finds that cultural destruction has gone hand in hand with crimes against humanity. Attempts to eliminate a group of people are almost always preceded by assaults on that community’s symbols and monuments. As the book’s author Robert Bevan has said, if we want to make progress on either front, “it is vital to make more explicit the links between cultural protection and the protection of human rights.”
Another topic “The Destruction of Memory” touches on is the issue of reconstructing cultural sites after their destruction. An interesting tension emerges here between two schools of thought – people who believe monuments should be reconstructed as accurately as possible and those who believe reconstructed sites should contain reminders and memorials to the destruction done. The documentary doesn’t come down firmly on either side of the debate but allows each to speak.
Architect Daniel Libeskind, best known for designing the World Trade Center site, represents the side of memorialization, arguing that reconstructing monuments exactly as they were is just another kind of erasure, a doomed attempt to wipe away memories of a significant event. One representative of the other side is CyArk, a nonprofit company dedicated to preserving “collective human memory” through digital scannings of important sites which allow for precise preservation, and possibly restoration, of monuments.
One possible criticism of “The Destruction of Memory” is the amount of trust it seems to place in the U.N. and other international organizations to monitor attacks on cultural sites. The documentary seems to propose that the main path forward is for the international community to begin taking cultural genocide as seriously as it takes physical genocide; while this might represent a step in the right direction, it seems insufficient in many ways. The belief that the U.N. is really capable or willing to provide equal protection to cultural sites of groups all across the world seems highly questionable. After all, a full 47 percent of the 1,121 locations designated by the U.N. as world heritage sites are located in Europe or North America.
Nonetheless, despite this unfortunate refusal to take a closer examination of how organizations like the U.N. tend to prioritize cultural preservation, “The Destruction of Memory” offers an important perspective on the connection between architecture, memory and the severe cultural damage inflicted by the destruction of physical landscapes. At the same time, the documentary avoids slipping into a hopeless tone by emphasizing notable cultural preservation attempts throughout history — from Lemkin’s push to label cultural genocide a war crime to the restoration of hundreds of destroyed mosques in Bosnia and the memorialization of the World Trade Center site.
Ultimately, by combining clear examples of the dangers posed by the destruction of monuments with memorable attempts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, “The Destruction of Memory” succeeds in crafting an urgent call for awareness and activism.
“The Destruction of Memory” is currently playing at Amherst Cine.