On Memorials and “Kulturminner”

A Reflection for Norway on July 22

NorgeTo memorialize a tragedy is a complicated ritual.

Most of us believe a people needs to take time for remembrance: as part of the grieving process, to connect with a collective history, and even to relinquish the weight of the past. Yet grieving differs from person to person. Some quickly recommit to living a “normal,” day-to-day life, affirming that tragedy does not defeat them. Some desire a ceremonial recognition of their grief, a formal observation in which to pay respect and remind themselves of their beliefs and values in the company of others.

National grieving highlights the paradoxical dynamic of communal cohesion and individual variety as do few other emotional processes – and as a national act, bearing implications for a whole people, engages more viewpoints and thereby risks more judgment than would a private tragedy.

As the Norwegian people have prepared for this weekend’s 22. juli memorials, Nina Berglund, the editor of Views and News from Norway, has provided thought-provoking coverage and reflection on how they approach the challenge. I was especially struck by her forthright and compassionate recognition of the tension in how individuals grieve amid the national momentum toward the anniversary of the tragedy.

In her July 17 commentary, she wrote:

After weeks of rain and a rare glimmer of sunshine in the capital this week, it seemed almost a shame to interrupt some badly needed summer holiday time for terror-weary Norwegians and their government leaders, with more agonizing over the attacks that killed 77 persons. But gather they will and many promise they won’t be agonizing, out of respect for the victims and a need to move forward.

“Moving forward” usually seems the tricky part; for the process of commemoration has the quality of stopping ordinary time, as did the tragedy that initiated it. While we find interruptions to daily life pleasant in holidays – the possibility of something novel, of time away from frustration to explore alternatives – we are less likely to embrace those that evoke helplessness and pain. When the latter feelings become institutionalized, the danger of inertia seems very real.

As an American, I often ponder how we have handled our “process” when I observe many U.S. institutions evoking 9/11 in policy and practice. Likely in some ways – especially in promoting obsessiveness about security and our ability to predict and control every circumstance – doing so has been to our detriment, encouraging a culture of fear and diverting resources and attention from matters critical to daily life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Hypervigilance not only promotes a “lockdown” in activity; it also encourages the very suspicion, self-certainty, and intolerance that motivated the perpetrators of the tragedy.

The process of moving forward is one of letting go, and trusting an event to speak for itself.

Lost to the Sea

A monument to community members lost at sea, on the grounds of the medieval church on Kirkeøy, Hvaler

Norway is in the early stages of national grief, still a month away from sentencing the perpetrator of the tragedy. First-anniversary feelings remain raw, especially among those directly impacted by loss of family, friends, and colleagues. Even so, an uneasiness about the impact not only of the tragedy but about the term and manner of the grieving is emerging.

I suggest it is something to be watched compassionately, and not resisted. Uncomfortable as it is, that, too, should be part of the process.

A Views and News account of the debate over Utøya’s role in the future opens an observation point onto how the process plays out. Many feel deep discomfort at the thought of returning Utøya to use for political summer camps; they feel it would be disrespectful of those who died, and they prefer the island as a whole to be a memorial. Others, however, consider abandoning it to be almost defeatist – a surrender of its history and purpose to a self-serving act of political hatred.

Maybe a useful way to contemplate the issue is to reflect on how memorials function. On each of my visits to Norway, I spent considerable time contemplating the Norwegian past. It would be tremendously difficult not to do so. The country is studded with historical reminders: from kulturminner, “cultural monuments,” formally documented by the government; to remnants of burial mounds, military caches, and bunkers locally known but not signposted; to small memorials to lost seafarers, cairns along trails, and personal markers of loss in the graves of churchyards. (The Directorate for Cultural Heritage, or Riksantikvaren, has an absolutely astonishing search map for culture sites, locating over 115,000 – as they say, everything from “cooking pits to gas stations.”)

This is a country passionate in its appreciation for its past. Whether or not Utøya is reclaimed as a site for a political party camp, it will be irrevocably marked and speak of that time with the future. Makeshift memorials have already arisen. More formal ones will follow and inform the future of what Norwegians hold important. That is the true function of a memorial: recording the memories and contemporary feelings about a site for reception by future generations.

How they will receive it cannot be controlled; but speak, it will.

Berglund’s report of the reappearance of a World War II-era message on Ringeriksveien, a narrow road leading to the dock launching craft to Utøya, resonates with both this surfacing of memorial artifacts to speak to other contexts and with a particular lesson I have received from the land on my travels. Painted on the road’s asphalt at one spot are the words Vi Vil Vinne (We Will Win). The words first emblazoned the pavement a year after the Nazis invaded Norway, and the account of their disappearance and reappearance in different forms is fascinating. The slogan’s embeddedness in the landscape also points to the shifting nature of history’s footprints: their character as both intentional and thoughtless, responsive to the moment yet inadvertently speaking beyond it.


Nazi gun turret in the bunkers at Fossum Bru over the Glomma River, Østfold

In my five years of visiting Norway so far, I have experienced the paradox of journeying what I think of as krigsleden, “the War’s trail,” through this remarkably peaceable country. The first artifact of the World War II that I encountered was a framed copy of newspaper VG‘s reconstruction of the sinking of the German cruiser Blücher in Drøbak Sound; it hung in the room where I first slept. My first trip into Oslo took me to the Norges Hjemmefrontsmuseum (Norwegian Resistance Museum), whose exhibits document life under the occupation and the people’s active and secretive resistance. The walk to the building took me past numerous reminders of Winston Churchill in establishment names, and outside sat a statue of one of my own presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt – who wisely identified the true enemy, whom America, like much of the world, still fights today.

Aside from Pearl Harbor, which is far from our mainland, the vast majority of Americans have no experience of occupation and on-the-ground warfare. We have not, as a nation, experienced the need to develop the discreet ways of defying an occupying foreign authority that ordinary Norwegians adopted, such has hiding radio transmitters in log piles and wearing subtle symbols of freedom – red Bobble hats, paper clips – as signs of national defiance and hope. We do not know what it is to make shoes out of fish skin in the absence of leather or to undergo rationing of all essential goods. We have not undergone forced labor.

And, despite the attacks of 9/11, we do not what it is to have our landscape torn apart by an enemy, to construct fortifications against us and structures for our incarceration. Few things convey the invasive, oppressive nature of life under Nazism, its fatal flaws, and its inevitable futility more than the relics of bunkers scarring a beautiful countryside.


Statue at Minnelunden (the grove of remembrance), Gamle Aker Kirke, Oslo

I offer here some of my photographic impressions of the Norwegian past’s message to us. And yet, part of me rejoices a little in the thought that, as the Earth moves in its own time, oblivious of us, these relics too may gather moss and fade. For perhaps the greatest lesson of a memorial is the one on which the 19th-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley meditated:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

– “Ozymandias”


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