May 2, 2011 marked the end of an era. At about 12:30 am, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, twenty-three U.S. Navy Seals entered a giant 3,500 square meter, white-walled compound and killed the mastermind behind 9/11 and the face of the enemy of the long War on Terror, Osama Bin Laden. Soon after, Bin Laden’s body was flown to a U.S. military vessel and buried in the North Arabian Sea. They didn’t want the body to become a shrine for fanatics, they said.
On February 25, 2012, Pakistani authorities brought in the military, heavy machinery, and flood lights to demolish the symbolic compound. They said they didn’t want the compound to become a shrine for Bin Laden’s followers.
But the past is stubborn. Even with the body buried in the middle of nowhere and the compound reduced to rubble, the land on which Bin Laden lived and on which the United States conducted its controversial operation is still present. A month ago, a row emerged about whether this land should be used to make a playground, a graveyard, or perhaps even a girls’ school.
Pakistan isn’t the only country with a problematic landmark. All nations have parts of their history that they would rather erase but denial only goes so far when actual physical spaces persist as reminders of the ugly past. So how have other countries dealt with historical sites that bring back unpleasant memories? They have taken a spectrum of approaches that range from absolute eradication to complete preservation.
On one end of the spectrum, some historically controversial places have been completely conserved, often involuntarily. The best example is Hitler’s birthplace, a medium-sized two-story apartment in Branua am Inn, Austria. Hitler’s family rented a few rooms on the top floor. Though Hitler had only lived in the apartment for three years, the Austrian interior ministry has rented the entire building from its new owner, Gerlinde Pommer since 1972 for fear that otherwise the house would become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazi sympathizers.
The house was briefly used as a daycare center for the disabled but for the most part has remained unoccupied in its original, unadulterated state. Ms. Pommer refused to allow any renovations or modifications until 2016 when the Austrian government stepped in to seize the house and end the feud once and for all. The unique case of Austria’s tussle with the property owner shows how physical ownership and local laws can expose internal rifts within countries and stymie the efforts of even the most politically correct governments to correct the past.
In a broad sense, Austria’s dilemma closely resembles Pakistan’s. The Austrian interior minister has supported a complete demolition of the site but critics have pointed out that the piece of land would then just become a “Hitler Park” or “Hitler Square” for sympathizers. Others have suggested using the house as a museum or memorial for educational purposes. The crux of the debate seems to be the question of how to effectively depoliticize an over-politicized physical space and it is clear that both Austria and Pakistan will be watching each other closely.
Another less directly applicable case is that of the World War I Somme battlefields in Belgium and France. Even though they aren’t associated with one particular wicked person, the battlegrounds carry feelings of pain and loss as places where mindless manslaughter actually occurred. While some grounds have been turned into mass memorial graves, many have remained untouched and are still dotted with unpredictable landmines, keeping visitors and nationalists out. The lack of government attention to such sites is a reminder of how powerful symbolic figures like Hitler and Bin Laden can be, and how every place they have touched requires cleansing of its past.
There is a grey area between complete preservation and total eradication, but countries have used two approaches to dealing with problematic sites that could be considered a middle ground. The first, partial preservation, signifies that the physical space has retained its original form and shape but has acquired a new societal role or economic purpose. This definition disqualifies Hitler’s house, which still had the Austrian government as a tenant for over 60 years and the Somme battlefields, which have remained frozen in time.
A less well-known but still relevant place is Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India. The Bagh (park) is the infamous site of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre when British army officer, General Dyer blocked off hundreds of unarmed protesters inside the park and ordered his troops to open fire. Today the park is still a public recreation center but the rocks and structures display bullet wounds, a mark of its preserved state. The park has also organically taken on a more memorial role and people come to pay tribute to the fallen.
Another partially preserved space is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, a place even more closely associated with Hitler’s legacy than his birth home. Although now also a landmark for visitors, the camp is in its former state and the eerie words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Means Progress) still greet visitors at the entrance. The camp is a rare and stark example of a dark place built by an equally dark man that has resisted eradication or renovation. Again, the space has taken on a memorial role and tourists pay their regards to the millions who suffered rather than those who caused the suffering.
Since Jalianwala Bagh and Auschwitz were places of cruelty rather than places owned by the cruel, they were able to escape controversy and redefine themselves as memorials against the men whom they were associated.
The second middle-ground approach is modified reuse. When places are unlikely to take on a memorial role, authorities have intervened to manually redefine their function and form. In Chile, dictator Augusto Pinochet’s house has also attracted controversy. Although his legacy is more disputed than Hitler’s or Bin Laden’s, few deny the trials and disappearances that were rampant during his restrictive dictatorship. Moreover, Pinochet’s house is special because it also served as an office for the ruler, and was therefore not just a symbolic residence, but a focal point for Pinochet’s actions. Even though many Chileans would rather bury his regime, the owner of Pinochet’s house, the Pinochet Foundation has taken the completely opposite stance. The house has been turned into a museum celebrating the life and career of the dictator and is meant to attract “foreigners and young people.” The case again reflects an internal rift between the private owner of the physical space and the public government that has limited power to intervene.
When it comes to dictators, almost everyone knows the extravagant Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, whose palatial estate created complications after the fall of Communism in 1989. To this day, it is unclear how much taxpayer money was spent on building this Romanian “city within the city” and the government quickly sought to integrate it into the new democratic, market-driven Romania. The building, incomplete at the time of the ruler’s death, was legally finished in 1994 and soon housed the new Romanian Senate and Chamber of Deputies. However, the estate was so large that 70% of it remained empty and useless. In fact, the building defied attempts at modified reuse and reaffirmed its identity as a monument of greed. In 2014, the Romanian government put the estate on sale.
A final and most interesting example is the one we would most commonly associate with the likes of Hitler (and maybe Bin Laden): Stalin. Stalin was born in the town of Gori in modern day Georgia. But despite his role behind the massacre of opposition figures and national minorities such as Ukrainians, he is revered in his hometown. In a more extreme version of the Chilean government’s opinion of Pinochet, the Gori government wants to preserve the positive image of Stalin as a Russian hero. Although Gori is a tiny struggling town, Stalin’s small, wooden birth hut has been transformed into a grand museum with large sculptures and monuments celebrating the man’s political trajectory and life. Although Georgia’s own government and foreign powers have advocated for an anti-Communist, anti-Stalin policy, the recent plans for the dictator’s birthplace have been the opposite of those for the similarly controversial sites in Austria or Pakistan.
Circle back to the modern world and Bin Laden and we have a very rare case of complete eradication by the Pakistani government. The compound has literally been obliterated. This rare action suggests that the Bin Laden case itself is somewhat unique. Firstly, unlike the case of Hitler’s childhood apartment, Bin Laden was not born in this compound. In fact, he stayed in the estate for a short period of time when Al Qaeda was already on the decline. Secondly, the compound itself is a very large space, increasing the range of possibilities regarding what could be done with the space. Finally, Bin Laden is a special case because he is a non-state actor unlike all the cases discussed above.
Despite the initial use of complete eradication, local authorities believe their plan was insufficient and are now pursuing a strategy closer to the modified reuse part of the spectrum. On surface, the row is between the two camps who disagree about the best use of the land: one group wants to build a playground and the other wants to build a graveyard. But the rift exposes a more telling dichotomy in Pakistani society and politics. The playground camp is the local, fairly elected civilian government and the graveyard camp is the all-powerful, universally respected military. The tug of war among the civilian government, the military and the intelligence agency has been a permanent feature of Pakistani politics for many years and it is well known that the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence pull the strings behind most decisions in the country. In the most recent development, the local military-controlled cantonment has erected a fence around the compound, marking it as their territory and reminding Pakistanis about their deeper control.
But beyond the way the plans for the repurposing of Bin Laden’s compound serves as a micro-political conflict, it is also fascinating to look at the arguments at use in the playground vs. graveyard debate. The graveyard camp has argued that no one will call it Bin Laden graveyard and no sympathizer will be particularly interested in visiting a site of graves. However, few have raised concerns about how easily graveyards can become places for memorials. Bin Laden graveyard could very well manifest as an ode to Bin Laden’s “achievements.” A playground attempts to fundamentally turn the place around, transforming it from a politically controversial space to one that benefits society and its next generations. However, some have raised concerns about the risky environment it would create for the children who play there, who would be susceptible targets if Bin-Laden sympathizers attack.
The final verdict
The true depoliticization of this cursed land will only occur if it is integrated into the natural environment of the city rather than exceptionalized. The danger of turning Bin Laden’s compound into a graveyard is that the land will remain vacant and devoid of activity. While this option reduces the risk to civilians, it makes it much easier for sympathizers to visit and even erect monuments in favor of their fallen “hero.” Graveyards are exceptional parts of cities: unpopulated, deterring and immutable. Moreover, building a graveyard would undermine the local government since the Khyber Paktunkhwa government legally owns the land.
The best kind of remodeling plan is one that allows for true reintegration. What if in ten years a viewer had no idea that they stood on the land that once housed the Bin Laden compound? The country should strive to make the new modification blend into the city surroundings perfectly over the long-term. If the government believes in the model of reintegration, it might be best to build something so mundane and omnipresent that the “compound” fades away into the background of the city. Why build a graveyard or a playground when you can have offices?