Genocide Tourism


There is a very traditional view of conserving historic sites that considers such sites to be honorific and edifying; noble and good. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union saved Mount Vernon to honor George Washington as the founder of the United States. Of course, they were also trying to protect his home from the depredations of “manufactories” and prevent the Civil War, but their primary stated goal was honorific.

Similarly, much of 19th century American preservation was about battlefields and founding fathers. But historic sites are also saved as warnings to posterity; as legacies or reminders of very horrible events that are the opposite of honorific: we save them because there are lessons to be learned. The Germans have a word for this kind of landmark: Mahnmal, as opposed to the more generic Denkmal or the honorific Ehrenmal. And it was in Germany 30 years ago that I first encountered genocide tourism.

The site was Dachau, a concentration camp outside Munich where Jews and other perceieved enemies of the state were incarcerated and killed. I remember the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the ovens in the crematoria and the quote from Santayana about those who do not learn the lessons of history and are thus bound to repeat it.

The infrastructure of Holocaust memorials and museums has grown considerably since 1982, and one of the intriguing sites is of course Prague, where the Nazis saved buildings as a kind of landmark to what they planned as a vanished race. The Jewish quarter and synagogue and cemetery is still a significant tourist attraction.

I recalled this because I have just done a lot of genocide tourism the last two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. In Phnom Penh a popular tourist attraction is S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a onetime school converted into prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge during their murderous 1975-79 regime.

These sites can be brutal: S-21 features skulls in cabinets, huge displays of photos of those killed, and actual shackles, torture devices and preserved cells that were crafted out of the larger classrooms Barbed wire still lines one of the buildings.





The endless rows of photos of those who were tortured and died here is of course sobering, and the remaining physical remnants evocative, although a horror of that scale and brutality is easily beyond the experience of most of the tourists. There are crude paintings depicting some of the tortures, and there are corpse photos that give some sense of it, but like all historic interpretive challenges, the most effective and lasting memory was the descriptions given by our guide.

Our guide was not shy about describing some tortures fairly explicitly eliciting a collective physical reaction from our group as he described the way they killed babies. He also demonstrated how the shackles worked and showed us the bloodstains in one room.

I teach classes and have been involved for years with the interpretation of historic sites, so this question of how to interpret and present and re-present genocide and torture and murder is an interesting one. The barbed wired and various surviving elements do an effective job at conveying a particularly horrific episode in human history, but there was something about the stream of tourists going through the site that created an unfair equivalence of use with more honorific or aesthetic tourists sites.

The Khmer Rouge ruled less than four years, but during that time murdered – often brutally – at least a quarter of the population, over 2 million persons. They began by killing intellectuals and anyone else who did not fit their radical agrarian ideal, continued by killing ordinary citizens, and finally began killing their own cadres as Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid. You see all three groups pictured here in S-21, and sometimes you see their clothes and their bones.


How do you convey genocide? Apparently, some conventions have evolved, such as the piles of clothes and the rows of photos, because there are parallels to Holocaust museums. Just as we have standard ways of interpreting battlefields or house museums or old factories, we have developed a vocabulary for describing the brutality of murdering millions.

A survivor outside sells his book about surviving the prison, and people wander through the site in much the same way they wander about the Royal Palace or the Silver Pagoda. It is a bit more somber, clearly, but it is still a tourist site full of tourists.

So is the Killing fields site, about 20Km outside of Phnom Penh. One of 388 such sites in the country. Depressions in the ground convey the killing fields themselves, while an attractive shrine designed with elements of traditional Khmer architecture provides the backdrop, its interior packed with 17 stories of skulls arranged by age group.



The vocabulary of skulls, perhaps inherited from catacombs sites, reappears, as does the vocabulary of piles of clothing of the murdered. More clothes and more bones tend to surface after rains. The repetition and quantity convey some of the horror.

Signage describes sites where killings happened, where prisoners were held, where chemicals were used to dissolve the bodies. In the fields themselves more signs describe how many bodies in what condition were found in various pits and you swear you can still see fragments of bone and cloth as you walk through the site.



It is somber, but in the sunlight it is not eerie, although even the signs can elicit that involuntary jerk of the neck and shoulders we experienced at S-21. But what struck me again was how big the site was and how many tourists were there to see it. Concessions provided food and drink for the weary.

How must it feel to be famous for genocide and to offer that as one of your city’s – or country’s – greatest “attractions”? Does it promote healing or does it prolong suffering? Certainly it responds to a market – people have heard of the Killing Fields, seen the movie, and want to see them, much as they want to see the (long gone) “murder castle” of H. H. Holmes in Chicago, thanks to the book “The Devil and the White City.” Devil and the White City tours have become a staple the last several years. Is it morbid curiosity? Sure, but what does that mean? Is it morbid curiosity to see Napoleon’s tomb, or Ho Chi Minh’s, or Lincoln’s?

“Morbid curiosity” seems to denote the desire to see a crime scene, or the rubbernecking at a highway accident. It is also something we outlawed 20 years ago, at least in terms of Native Americans. You may not look at their graves or bones, thanks to NAGPRA in 1990. But I can see the skull of St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, as I did this January in Lima, Peru. I can even see unidentified bones in Austrian churches or French catacombs:


There is clearly a difference between an Ehrenmal (place of honor) and a Mahnmal (place of warning), but what attracts tourists to each place? Do these sites promote the idea of “Never Again” as it says on the stone in front of Hitler’s birthplace, or do they simply satisfy morbid curiosity? There is certainly an element of identity at play, the identity perhaps unfortunate that Cambodia gained from this horrific history.

Perhaps it is also a calculation about what the tourist want to see. In Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon), Americans are brought to the War Remnants Museum (originally the War Atrocities Museum) where they get a good dose of our own little genocides, villages wiped out and all civilians killed.

They also bring everyone to the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex that is literally a city underground, where the Viet Cong waged their war of resistance against the Americans and South Vietnam. And our group was brought to So Do, another Viet Cong site which has been rebuilt with concrete walkways that look like wooden bridges, restored thatch headquarters and trap doors and bunkers built throughout the jungle near Sa Dec.


There was a wedding going on there, the noise of which made it hard to understand our guide, shown here with an interpreter dressed as a 1960s Viet Cong:

This is identity tourism, but it is geared toward the visitors – Americans – rather than the locals, although there were domestic tourists there as well. This somewhat relentless series of Vietnam War sites that most tourists visit is indicative of the identity politics of the tourists. The Vietnam War defined the United States in a way it did not define Vietnam. Vietnam defines itself much more by the oppression they feel from the Chinese, who invaded for a thousand years and have fought them regularly since (including a shooting war years after the Americans left). The tourism infrastructure of these Vietnam War sites is clearly driven by the American market, and in fact So Do is almost entirely a reconstruction.

The effect of all of this genocide tourism was neither numbing nor depressing. It was certainly sobering, and certainly in many moments uncomfortable, but comfort will never convey history accurately, even more pedestrian and less brutal histories. Ultimately genocide tourism is a particular brand of heritage tourism, driven in part by identity, in part by a need to warn posterity, and largely by the market for seeing, and perhaps understanding, the shared inhumanity in us all.

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2 Responses to “Genocide Tourism”

  1. Mark Miller Says:

    Strange the topics that arise in the wee early hours of St. Patrick’s Day…

  2. sperlaine Says:

    This is reminiscent of some of the artistic expressions of death I experienced at “Morbid Curiosity,” the exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. It’s easy to get lost in the finer curatorial aspects of the exhibit. The uncomfortableness comes when you start to think about how they amassed the objects in order to create the display.

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