What do you do with the graves and memorials of your enemies? That is a question that has faced conquerors for thousands of years.
When Alexander the Great had captured Thebes in 338 BC, he murdered all the males, sold the women into slavery, and ordered the city razed to the ground — with the exception of one house. The home he ordered spared was that of the dead poet Pindar, a favourite of Alexander who liked the fact that Pindar had spoken well of Macedonians.
When a Roman emperor had been overthrown by his rivals, his works and statues were obliterated in what they called a damnatio memoriae. A similar fate has now overtaken Canadian politicians like John A Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, or Lord Cornwallis, who in their time were not nice enough to aboriginals in the eyes of 21st-century critics.
In 1547, when the Catholic emperor Charles V had taken the town of Wittenberg where Martin Luther was buried, he was asked whether he wanted the arch-heretic’s grave dug up and his remains burnt or hung from a gallows. Much to his credit, Charles replied, “I make war on the living, not on the dead.” Luther’s resting place was left undisturbed.
A similar attitude seems to have been held by Adolf Hitler in 1940. Hitler had been a soldier in the German army during World War I and had suffered in the trenches, ending the war in a military hospital recovering from a poisonous gas attack he endured at the Ypres salient in Belgium. What would he do then when he returned to that site as a conqueror 22 years later and found an enormous Canadian war memorial (picture above)?
Unlike many other Allied graves from the Great War, the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge was not vandalized by the Nazis. Apparently, Hitler appreciated the fact that our memorial was not glorifying war but mourning our dead. He ordered an SS guard mounted at the site and protected the monument from any damage.