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Grand Subtleties and Evil Gods

Thursday, 5th July, 2001

I still fail to understand just how the nation's capital could have been so empty of people while its roads were so frantically heaving. We hit traffic on the way into Washington, DC, but we were expecting it and made good time. It gave us almost a full day to experience the unashamed American glory that is tangible here.

Of all the tourist attractions that dot this city at every turn, we had earmarked one in particular for our prompt attention. It was somewhere that both Tracy and I very much wanted to see, but with different expectations. I fully expected the Holocaust Museum to be little more than a blatant commercial break for the American GI who won the war and saved the world. Thankfully and surprisingly I was entirely wrong.

No small walkthrough this, we spent over six hours absorbing the history that was so superbly displayed here. The permanent exhibition comprises three floors worth of material, covering everything from the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime through the implementation of his Final Solution to his eventual downfall. It is not set out like some glossy photojournalism; rather it is a bleak and grim portrayal of the true horror of war, hate and bigotry. The starkness and brutality of the era has worked its way into the very air and it is easy to hear the catch in people's throats as they gasp into sudden silence.

Amongst such an overpowering display the singularities congeal into one mass impression, but there were still standouts, probably different for each visitor as they come to terms with the details that horrify their personal sensibilities most.

For me there were a few, as there always have been. Two of the gates to the Auschwitz death camp are here, the real gates, through which untold thousands rode on their way to the showers. A couple of the carriages that housed them on their journey are here too, homes for days without ventilation, furnishing or sanitation. The Holocaust was such a recent event that it seems almost wrong to consign it to history. Coming face to face with artefacts such as these provides a blatant link to that history.

I spent a short time at the Lidice exhibit, an event that has always cut me to the quick. In retaliation for the assassination of Richard Heydrich, the Nazis massacred every inhabitant of the town of Lidice - men, women and children - and razed it in entirety to the ground. Nothing remains.

The Holocaust is too big an event to easily visualise, but Lidice is the Holocaust in miniature, small enough to partially understand, yet large enough to sear the soul. The true horror is blinking back to the present, indelibly marked by realisation only for it to become insanely clear that it was but a single entry in the catalogue of the Final Solution. Such perspective is more than sobering; it brings the inhumane right up to your eyes and slaps you in the face.

Engrossed in the exhibits, I hadn't noticed my reaction to one in particular, but Tracy saw and commented later. Apparently I had recoiled from one in horror, looking pained at the sight. I understand why, though in and amongst such depravity, this exhibit would rarely attract such a reaction from visitors. It dealt with the burning of books, something that I find very difficult to watch, even in fiction such as the third Indiana Jones movie. I'd mentioned it before, but in seeing my recoil Tracy understood just how much it hurts me. Heinrich Heine once wrote, 'Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.' The Nazis weren't the first people to prove him right and, sadly, I'm sure they won't be the last.

While it was the book burning that seared me most, Tracy was noticeably affected by almost the final exhibit. Far from my expectations of glorifying the American role in the ending of the war, the entire museum was fair to the point of bleakness. Tracy's eyes were opened by the continued refusal of President Roosevelt to bomb the death camps into non-existence. He insisted for a number of years that he couldn't spare the manpower or the equipment to reach out over such a distance, and that the best way to stop the atrocity was to win the war. It all sounds fair enough until you realise that many targets were being bombed almost next door. Roosevelt couldn't divert his bombers a few hundred yards.

After three floors of bludgeoning reality, visitors exit the permanent exhibition sadder and hopefully a little wiser and quietly trek, lost in thought, to the Hall of Remembrance, austere and sincere. It carries a perpetual flame and in simple, stark lettering, the names of each of the death camps used by the Nazis in their quest to purify their race. After all the details of depravity, here is a mere symbol and it seems a most welcome one. It focuses our thoughts admirably.

There are other parts to the museum too, most strikingly for me a wall, recently constructed and fashioned out of simple bathroom tiles. The tiles were created by children, each with its own personal and unique design. Some showed surprising maturity: the one that struck a chord for me was a deceptively simple one in and amongst all the hodgepodge of varied design. It was merely painted red and carried a single word: blood.

Walking back out through the metal detectors to the outside world felt like leaving a sealed box. Suddenly there was air and I realised that I probably hadn't used much while inside. There was too much horror to steal my breath. It may seem heretical, but I felt a need to lighten the tone. Only after the Holocaust Museum could the monuments and memorials of the nation's capital seem light-hearted.

First was the Washington Monument, a massive monolith visible from everywhere in the city. The only reason that Washington seems so much like a small town is because there are no skyscrapers. There is a statute that prohibits any building from being higher than the Washington Monument. It does make a lot of sense. For my part, I was impressed. Though it was closed and partially covered with scaffolding, it remains an imposing piece of architecture, the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world, suitably subtle yet such a powerful symbol for the city and the country both.

As much as the Washington Monument impressed me, the Lincoln Memorial didn't. It lies at the other end of the National Mall with its Reflecting Pool, unfortunately and unceremoniously festooned with duck crap. Far from being subtle and powerful, I found myself cringing at the religious overtones of the Lincoln Memorial. The design seems to invite worship, far from the attention the man himself would have wanted. After climbing interminable belittling steps, the famous statue of Lincoln appears through Doric columns as if he were Zeus himself. I found it egotistical and pathetic.

Just to the sides, as perfect contrasts, are a number of war memorials. The Vietnam Memorial, after an initial conflict over its design by the young Vietnamese girl Maya Ying Lin, has taken its rightful place as one of the most subtly beautiful memorials anywhere. Two sides of reflective black granite, sloping in gradually to a point, are inscribed with the names of all US servicemen lost. The roses left merely added poignancy to an already powerful memorial.

On the other side of the Lincoln Memorial lies the Korean Memorial, a far more ostentatious collection of statues leading up to a Pool of Remembrance. The statues work only at night, looking totally out of place during daylight, but the most powerful element astounds during the day too. It's another black wall, but sandblasted with over two thousand images, large and small and randomly placed. It gives the impression of nothing less than the ghosts of the dead always present to watch over their memorial.

A little way off to the side lies the Jefferson Memorial, as fitting a monument to a president as the Lincoln Memorial isn't. There are huge columns here to house a huge statue but Jefferson looks as much a humble servant as Lincoln looks like an evil god.

The only other memorial of note we saw is another record breaker and a beautiful one at that. The Iwo Jima Statue, the largest cast bronze statue in the world is truly stunning at night. It has rightly become a national symbol of pride for Americans, though I still deny its place as the most important symbol of the century. For me it would have to be Winston Churchill's V for Victory and the unknown protester who blocked the tank in Tianenmen Square.

But for now, I'll celebrate the glory of America as demonstrated so well in its nation's capital. I don't know quite what I expected, but it wasn't this. I was impressed.

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