Cities: the custodians of European culture in an age of annihilation.
In 1982 I walked slowly through the bomb-damaged ruins of Dresden still prominent long after the end of the war. The city had been destroyed by an allied bombing raid in February 1945. While much was rebuilt, and more since the tragic loss of culture from all the destroyed cities during the war still reverberates through European memory.
It was a quiet Saturday morning, in 1982, and no one took much notice of a scruffy long-haired student taking photographs. Walking toward Dresden-Neustadt, I crossed the River Elbe, passed a tram junction, and took a picture of the Red Army statue. Eventually, I came to a street of old pre-war buildings and took a picture of a locksmith’s sign.
There was a shout, instinctively I put my camera away and looked towards the end of the street. Four or five Soviet soldiers were drunk but not staggering. Slowing down, I watched from a discrete distance as two elderly locals were intimidated by the soldiers and forced to walk into the gutter with heads bowed. In all previous visits to the other side of the wall, the only difficulties had been with border guards, GDR police and the odd Stasi official. This was the first time I saw that veil of occupation lifted - the occupier and the occupied. Forty years after the end of the war, it was my first impression of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.
The following year, I was standing on the platform of a Polish railway station. I was about to take a photograph of a steam engine with Solidarsność daubed on its tender in white paint. The platform guard, gently but firmly, pulled my arm down and wagged his finger. He motioned for me to wait and after a few minutes, a Soviet troop train came through the station. Once the train had passed, the guard spat on the tracks. He cloaked his protest - an act of passive resistance that went unseen except by me.
Fifteen years later I visited Warsaw, not for pictures of trains, but to continue my PhD research on the two uprisings: the Jewish ghetto uprising in 1943 and the Polish national uprising of 1944. Talking with a veteran of the 1944 uprising, she recommended I look at street excavations to see how much of the older city was ploughed into the foundations of the new city. After the 1944 uprising, Hitler ordered Warsaw rubble-ised. Outside of the allied bombing campaign, this was regarded as the most destructive act against any European capital. The same punitive destruction was ordered against Paris, but the German commander knew his limits and refused the order. Warsaw today is rebuilt, and a few older parts have been renovated, but the Palace of Culture and Science still stands as a symbol of the Soviet occupation and the legacy of Socialist realism.
Kyiv, known as Kiev in most western military history books, was occupied by the Nazis in September 1941. Almost immediately, Hitler’s SS set about the mass murder of the entire Jewish community. The memory of Babi Yar was memorialised, just as the ghetto and Umschlagplatz in Warsaw have been memorialised. The city was destroyed, but a Soviet reconstruction programme enabled the recovery and progress of the city that Putin attacked in February 2022. He failed and there was a great sense of relief, but it’s difficult to predict if that is the end of the story.
Mariupol has been trapped in a siege since Putin’s illegal invasion started. The scenes of destruction have surpassed Vukovar in 1991 and are gradually reaching the levels of Warsaw in 1944. Warsaw, Dresden, Vukovar, and Mariupol stand beside Grozny and Aleppo as victims of annihilation warfare. The scale of human misery has been mashed into the foundations of cities, leaving memories of loss, hate and revenge simmering.
In October 1944 Aachen was trapped in a siege for two weeks. Isolated from the German army, the defenders fought a torrid battle, during which the city, having already been heavily bombed more than 170 times by the allies, underwent further tactical bombardments before the US Army assaults. Under the weight of heavy howitzers buildings collapsed, and today the lines of the advance can still be traced against sites of long-gone buildings. The reconstruction of Aachen took more than 12 years, with persons still residing in the bunkers into 1955 because of the lack of homes. Beyond a few buildings, the cathedral, town hall, and churches, much of the city’s old physical culture was destroyed. Bodies were ploughed into the ruins and the allied occupiers struggled to impose nation-building policies. Eventually, the Germans took control and locals returned determined to save and restore what they could and rebuild what was lost forever. The Aachen that emerged from the reconstruction was not the same city from before the war.
Russia's annihilation warfare has degenerated into mechanised genocide, this was predictable. It is the nature of genocidal or security warfare (as discussed in my book - Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 2008) to escalate - not just in a conflict but across decades of military development. In Putin's illegal war, the armies have retreated but the bombardments have continued, including the targeted massacre against Kramatorsk railway station yesterday. Missiles are replacing artillery, as tanks once displaced machine guns, but warfare continues to revolve-evolve as manoeuvre warfare is displaced once again by attrition.
This genocidal interpretation of security warfare has been woven into the Russian way of war. The normal doctrines for mechanised warfare have been redirected with calculated precision and coordination into every bombardment - ranged against refugees on a railways station to salvos against apartment blocks. The result of this kind of warfare is how culture disappears before our eyes - villages flattened, cities scarred, mass casualties and national culture all ground into dust.
Security warfare prolongs warfare - this is the general lesson from the German colonial wars, the post-1918 conflicts, the Nazi occupation in Soviet Russia, conflicts of British decolonisation in the 1950s, the Vietnam War of bombing and body counts, and recently in Iraq. The Russians have harnessed their entire war machine to the bombardment and the prosecution of security warfare. Prolonging the war and prolonging the fighting is to prolong the scale of destruction as more of Ukrainian society is bombarded and more of Europe’s cultural heritage is lost. Turning the cities into battlegrounds creates myths and fantasies of war, but the loss destroys the historical, social, cultural, and economic identity of the city.
The story of Trostianets (29 March 2022) became a headline about two wars in one photograph. The photograph showed a T-34 on a plinth, commemorating the Great Patriotic War, surrounded by the destroyed carcasses of Russian tanks from 2022. The people, the community, and the horror were subsumed into a headline about a clash of conflicts. The tanks became the story, not the people.
The failure to predict Putin’s invasion not only defied experts but has also rendered the advocates of the western way of war and the modern western interpretation of military history clueless. The fundamental reason was the complete failure to track and trace Putin’s long-term intentions after 2014, if not after 2007/8. Massive military-intelligence-security expenditures have failed to predict an invasion by the 'old enemy' Russia. Scholars and politicians alike have struggled to ‘pass the buck’ to cloak the abject failure of western security. A recent statement by former President Barack Obama claimed he was prevented from halting Putin by European intransigence. Such claims will be exposed in the cold light of postwar investigative writing.
Social media is loaded with the great and the good now praising Ukraine's bravery and offering weapons to sustain the fight against Putin's war machine. The west offers weapons because it's more convenient. The convenience of enabling the Ukrainians to do the fighting, the dying, and their cities destroyed in annihilation bombardments. The Ukrainian cities are fast becoming the proving ground for western technology, trading liberty for destruction. Where does this end?
The west also remains unhealthily fascinated by the mass destruction and the mass killing - the ethnic cleansing, the crimes against humanity, and the mechanised genocide. The public face is bombarded with revolting images of war, but some western powers are determined to avoid referring to genocide for fear of facing criminal jurisdiction for crimes in old wars. Their political leaders jump hurdles to avoid the word, whilst the military experts devise nonsensical interpretations missing the nature of the conflict and its deep genocidal thread. These calculations are not deceiving everyone. Putin has unleashed genocide in Europe and against Europeans - time we read the writing on the wall. We have to break the spell of war, use our talents to find solutions and put an end to the genocide - or we face World War again and no more cities.