“Historia magistra vitae est”, said Cicero ages ago – but how many of us would actually learn from the old times and get interested in the causes of the events that changed the world? Well, there is no other option than to get yourself surrounded by causes and effects when you enter Imperial War Museum in Kennington.
Reuters car by the entrance. A wannabe journalist thinks – it has to be the toughest thing ever to report from under the flying bullets. The planes hanging over visitors’ heads – and you step into the display of events which were the mould for the modern world. Get ready to take all you know and fill in the gaps…
The display on the first floor is fully dedicated to the first world war. Fully interactive, so it’s easy for me to dive into comparisons with Warsaw Uprising museum. Europe divided by the fighting empires, striving for colonies. The class differences, education insufficiencies, women starting their serious fight for equality. The first time when the weapons against the masses were used. The prices, the rationed food, the uniforms. A plate of oatmeal, bread and tea for breakfast. Western front, home front, the adjustments that the Great War made in the ordinary existences. Brothers against their families in armies split by boundaries – and that’s just enough to get your imagination working. You can touch, read, check, play around, immerse yourself in what you see – and travel in time.
The second floor is dedicated to the 1939-1945 war. Everything that happened on each front, the twists and turns, the strategies. The coding machines, Enigma – the vehicles and weapons used to destroy generations. The life that still goes on where the enemy lines overlap. Stop and think – that’s just several decades ago…
All about modern war – I made it to the third floor. Touching the remains of the Berlin Wall and thinking of the Iron Curtain separating Western and Eastern Europe. The mechanisms of a nuclear warhead and the explanation of the technique in which it was used. What’s left of the body when atomic bomb hits – all burnt to the dark coal-like remains of what once was a human being. What Kosovo was all about. World Trade Center in 2001. The frightening reality of dictatorships and hardships of keeping the peace, in democratic ways – where possible. Apocalyptic contemplations – was this really happening, even before I was born, and then alongside my peaceful life?
The fifth floor is fully dedicated to Holocaust. As you walk through, you get to know about the policies to protect the “aryan race” and striving for the “living space” where Jews and the Slavic people are the ones that are occupying it unrightfully and need to be exterminated. The “crystal night”, the terror of concentration camps. The maps indicating their locations, a wall dedicated to the carriages where the ones who didn’t deserve the living space, according to the doctrine, were dying or waiting for the worst period of their lives at the end of the transport. The miniature replica of Auschwitz-Birkenau buildings, where “Arbait macht frei” (“Work makes you free”, the words displayed over Auschwitz main entrance) wasn’t exactly the promise of freedom – and the things which people left behind on their way to gas. The camp orchestra. The dire experiments and the biggest cruelty in the history of the world. I shed tear by tear as I walk past all those things, a precious bit of history to me. Borowski’s book, “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”, springs to mind, followed by Hanna Krall’s “Shielding the Flame” documentary. Six million dead, six million of the young, the intelligentsia, the undeveloped power exterminated.
I walk out – I’m in the Central London again. The sky is clear. The surroundings are calmer to me even if traffic around doesn’t seem to be any smaller than usual. There are no barricades. Nevertheless, those artifacts still speak louder to me than anything that was ever hidden between the history textbook pages.
Imperial War Museum, Kennington, London. Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ