Commemorating WWII: Living Memorials

It is now generally conceded that mere shafts of granite and statues of bronze, be they ever so artistic, are inadequate to express the tribute we would pay to our soldiers of democracy.

Writing in American Architect in 1919, Martha Candler was about a generation too early to speak for most readers of that journal. She was on the losing side of debate that pitted “those who advocated traditional forms of memorials such as statues, obelisks, triumphal arches, and other commemorative structures, those forms of memorials whose sole purpose is to serve as a memorial” against “those who supported ‘living memorials,’ useful projects such as community centers, libraries, forests, and even highways that were marked in some fashion, usually with plaques, as memorials.” (From my main source for this post: Andrew M. Shanken, “Planned Memory: Living Memorials in the United States during World War II,” The Art Bulletin 84 (March 2002): p. 130.) Instead, the sectors of France where members of the American Expeditionary Force had fought and been buried still feature structures like those Candler scorned as “unseemly relics”:

AEF Memorial near Bellicourt
U.S. II Corps Monument near Bellicourt, France

And New Ulm, Minnesotadespite its largely German-American population’s tense experience of 1917-18 — was typical of American towns in (eventually) erecting a statue of a doughboy, an image that would become a focal point for criticism by anti-traditionalist artists and architects in the 1940s:

Doughboy Statue in New Ulm City Cemetery
Erected in 1941 in New Ulm City Cemetery (renovated in 1995)

To be sure, WWI yielded some “living memorials,” including two types that I blogged about in an earlier series: memorial stadiums like the one that the University of Minnesota’s football team inhabited for almost sixty years; and roads like Minneapolis’ Victory Memorial Drive, a nearly four-mile stretch of parkway shaded by hundreds of trees dedicated to the memory of Hennepin County’s war dead.

Plaque for Rochester's Soldiers Memorial FieldThen on my recent tour of memorials in southern Minnesota I encountered a prime example of another type of living memorial that would grow ubiquitous later in the 20th century: Soldiers Memorial Field, a sprawling park in Rochester purchased by the American Legion and then sold to the city for the purpose of promoting amateur athletics.

Indeed, Andrew Shanken observes that the growing movement to promote physical fitness helped strengthen the “living memorial” side once a second world war renewed the debate over commemoration. The New Deal’s Federal Security Agency set up a committee in 1942 that “encouraged participation in physical fitness activities as a patriotic act” and sponsored the American Commission for Living War Memorials, whose 1944 pamphlet, Memorials that Live, began:

LIVING MEMORIALS keep alive the memories of the heroic deeds of the past and inspire the thoughts and actions of the heroes of a peaceful future.

PHYSICAL FITNESS and bodily ruggedness, developed on the play fields of America, have served well in the conquest of the Nazi and the Jap. The victories of peace, as well, will be won by the prowess and heroism of the physically fit and mentally rugged men and women of the nation.

MEMORIALS in honor of the heroes of your Community—dedicated to their unselfish devotion, established to carry on the tradition of physical fitness of all the people, that will encourage sports, recreation, and the wholesome use of leisure time—will indeed be LIVING MEMORIALS.

Beyond the confluence of physical fitness and patriotism, Shanken identifies several reasons that parks, like stadiums, roads, schools, and community centers — and not “tawdry ‘monumental’ monstrosities” like obelisks, arches, and statues — became the memorials of American participation in the Second World War.

“A shift in paradigms of representation”

The Marine Corps ("Iwo Jima") Memorial
The Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia – Wikimedia

First, most artists and architects agreed that “Modern war made conventional representation inadequate” (Shanken, p. 134), with Felix de Weldon’s Iwo Jima memorial the exception that proves the rule. Based on the iconic photo of Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi, it was first made as a wax model that was copied and used in war bond drives in 1945, then unveiled in bronze nine years later. Shanken writes:

On the surface, this expensive, nonutilitarian, quickly dated (not least of all because of the soldiers’ fatigues) monument seems to be the worst perpetrator of the sins of the traditional memorial. As a single heroic moment extracted from a particular battle, it represented the war directly, as opposed to the way living memorials sought to embody abstract ideals, such as the translation of wartime patriotism into peacetime community. That the Iwo Jima Memorial overcame these liabilities has much to do with its presentation as “real,” a verism beginning with its origins as a photograph and reinforced by public relations….

Only the Iwo Jima Memorial, which, in effect, is a photograph, avoided the “embarrassment” associated with Mark Rothko’s famous statement about figurative painting: “a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.” (p. 134, 135)

But in Shanken’s judgment, each attempt to “create entirely new forms which can symbolize the mood of the people” (a challenge issued in December 1944 by Architectural Forum) simply “ran into the same dilemma as the traditional memorial, as it merely substituted an abstract sculpture for a figural one,” a “failure” that “would end, by default, in living memorials.”

A reaction against the “useless and vulgar”

The dilemma was all the more acute because

Broadly speaking, by World War II expectations for what to memorialize were in flux. While the traditional memorial generally has been associated with the heroics of war, sacrifice, death, or victory, the living memorial eschewed many of these associations for a celebration of democracy, community, the pursuit of “better living.” (p. 135)

To many critics, traditional memorials seemed “useless and vulgar,” not only “embodiments of the indulgence of an earlier era” that celebrated death and had failed to break with ‘old world ways,’ but mass-produced clutter that misdirected money ‘which could be better used for needed community projects’ and were so incoherent that they could not serve their supposed purpose: to help the public remember well.

“The Living Memorial as Urban Planning”

As I noted in earlier posts on Victory Drive in Minneapolis and Duluth’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, earlier war commemoration dovetailed with the “City Beautiful” movement. Shanken argues that the WWII-era fascination with parks, libraries, and (above all others) community centers as living memorials continued that Progressive concern for “physical and social reconstruction” in urban America. Only now the concern was not simply the ugliness of ill-designed cities (though, again, one reason to reject traditional monuments was that they contributed to urban “clutter”) but the fragmentation and atomization of the modern age. Typical was the argument of Harold Buttenheim, editor of American City magazine, that “We need to make a place in our community plans for forging anew the community will, one which can give character and purpose to our towns and cities and shape the ideals of citizens.”

Streets in Appleton, MN named for fallen soldiers
I didn’t get to it on my tour, but Appleton, MN has an living memorial that uniquely illustrates the connection between commemoration and planning. In 1946 Appleton’s mayor proposed that a reorganization of the town grid honor its fallen: streets were renamed (and are still) after deceased soldiers – Town of Appleton

To Shanken, such appeals “to the will of the people also invoked democracy, which contrasted with the associations of iconic memorials with authoritarianism” (p. 137). But more than individual community centers or other civic buildings, cities themselves became memorials, as the disruptive effects of fighting total, modern war created space for rethinking urban areas:

The act of postwar planning offered people on the home front a means of contributing to the war effort; the town itself would be a living embodiment of the wartime experience. At root, [George] Nelson proposed [in a 1943 pamphlet, Main Street: Then and Now] rebuilding Main Street as a memorial to the war; the granite was the blueprint. Living memorials, as part of the planning effort, embodied the spirit for which the war was being fought. Thus, Nelson paired planning, usually an act of anticipation, with memorialization, usually an act of retrospection, as patriotic activities that spoke to a set of desired conditions after the war. In this light, American cities serve de facto as memorials to World War II, just as many German cities bear the unmistakable mark of the war and its aftermath in the Marshall Plan. (p. 138)

The Memorial as “elevating the present”

Finally, Shanken observes that “Unlike the traditional memorial, the living memorial resists the status of relic, preferring instead simply to be present, in both senses of the word. The one reinforces the past with its presence; the other tempers the past through the banality of use, elevating the present” (p. 139). He argues that memorial parks, roads, etc. were — unlike their more “funerary” precursors — able to answer the question posed in October 1945 by artist John Scott Williams: “Why should there be War Memorials when most people wish to forget the tragedies of war and turn to the more hopeful occupation of peace and prosperity?” Rather, advocates of living memorials successfully “shifted the terms of commemoration away from war and victory, sacrifice and death to a defiantly ahistorical attention to postwar living” (p. 141).

"Victory Drive," near Mapleton, MN
To be honest, I haven’t been able to discover which victory this section of road between Mankato and Mapleton, Minnesota commemorates

In the process, however, they made such a memorial “hard to sustain as a memorial,” which is why we now use so many WWII memorials without being reminded either of that war or the “anticipated set of ideas about life in postwar America” that Buttenheim et al. cherished. In the end, most living memorials neither commemorated nor exhorted, but dissolved into leisure:

By substituting the word “living” for “war,” the movement attempted to undermine the very raison d’être for war memorials: to signify the memory of war. In spite of its claims to the contrary, the most aggressively antitraditional living memorials did not memorialize the living, either; that would be nonsensical. They destabilized memory by condensing it into daily life, where it necessarily evaporates….

By eschewing monuments, living memorials ask the public not to think back, not to observe the older tradition. They threaten, in fact, to alter the nature of ritual commemoration by diverting the flow of memory into the reservoir of the specious present and damming up its natural flow, so to speak, into the past. One way this happens is through their conflation of memory with other activities, for instance, with leisure…. With World War II, American rituals of commemoration began to lapse into excuses for leisure activity with only nominal gestures, a plaque or a sign, to memory. (p. 141)

And perhaps that’s why the last 20-30 years have seen something of a reversal, with a new wave of commemoration in the 1990s and 2000s that was unabashedly old-fashioned. As we’ll see in the next post, many of Minnesota’s “veterans parks” and other commemorative public spaces have recently come to host new “relics” that, if not quite so grandiose as arches and obelisks, would no doubt horrify the self-consciously modern advocates of “living memorials.”

Read the next post in this series>>

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