The first individual speaker for our Writing War seminar was Dr Stefan Goebel, of the University of Kent. Stefan is one of the very few historians who do genuinely comparative work – by which I mean history based in a detailed understanding of both nations and cultures which are being compared. I first met him when he was completing his PhD on medievalism after the Great War. He’s now working on a study of the memorialisation of bombed cities in Britain and Germany after the Second World War. This formed the basis for his paper.
Stefan spoke to us about the post-war development of what we might call the brand of ‘Coventry as iconic bombed city’. Although the experience of bombing was terrifying and devastating for Coventry’s inhabitants, by the standards of other European cities in the course of the war as a whole they got off pretty lightly. Yet a combination of wartime events and post-war local, national and international politics meant that Coventry was able to construct itself as one of the ‘martyr towns of Europe’ – a grouping which included Leningrad and Hamburg.
The Germans coined a word ‘Coventration’ to describe what they had done to Coventry. First used in German propaganda, it was quickly appropriated by the British as an example of German barbarity, particularly useful in appealing to the US for aid. Notably, the Germans stopped using it when the tide of war turned and their own cities began to reap the whirlwind they had sown in the Midlands. But this new word – and its rapid international spread – was also adopted by the inhabitants of the city as an element in their own identity as they sought to rebuild the town during and after the war.
(As a sidelight, this backfiring of the rhetorical seems particularly relevant in light of the current controversy over the use of ‘chemical weapons’ by US forces in the assault on Fallujah. Whatever we think of the media debate, it does seem to me a clear example of how a word or phrase, once used, can be hard to put back in its box).
Coventry’s identity as a ‘bombed city’ – indeed, it could be portrayed as the bombed city – was used by local political and religious leaders in order to gain prestige, to attract attention and funding (particularly important for the rebuilding of the cathedral) and to establish the city as part of an international community. The aftermath of the Second World War saw a remarkable degree of international – or perhaps supernational – commemorative effort.
Amongst many interesting points in this part of Stefan’s paper, one element that stood out for me was the connections forged between members of Coventry city council and their counterparts in Dresden. Since Dresden was by then in East Germany, this link had its own political significance (perhaps more for the East Germans than for the Coventrarians). Indeed, this seemed a great example of the power of assumptions overtaking political realities. Coventry was happy to work with Dresden because its rulers comprehensively repudiated the Nazi past. What they omitted to understand was that the East German regime was very happy to receive legitimation for its version of Dresden – as an example of evil Western capitalist conspiracy.
Two constructive criticisms were levelled at Stefan’s paper. My own reaction was that there wasn’t quite enough on the link between personal experience and local memory. Were the councillors who used the myth of the city’s bombing in the 1950s the same people who had left Coventry in the lurch in 1940. I think it would be fair to say that this is not Stefan’s direct area of interest, however. Another – probably more useful – idea for improvement was that he might try being more cynical about the motives of local apparatchiks. To what extent did connections with ‘mourning cities’ overseas offer the opportunity for travel and personal enjoyment? In this short post I have done no justice at all to what was a nuanced, detailed and superbly well researched paper. I was very glad that Stefan could get us off to such a positive start. If any readers are directly interested in his topic (you know who you are) I suggest you try contacting him direct.