Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Canadian War Museum: Controversy in Context

The Canadian War Museum has updated its controversial panel relating to the Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War, and I have to say, I’m rather impressed with what they’ve come up with. The original panel, which caused uproar amongst some veterans who believed it painted them as war criminals, was terse and lacked context. As I mentioned in The Canadian War Museum Controversy on September 18, 2007, a person who did not have any previous knowledge of the bombing missions would have a difficult time coming to any logical conclusion other than that the bombing was immoral.[1]

The new panel, as found on this morning reads reportedly as follows:

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany, an important part of the Allied effort that achieved victory, remains a source of controversy today.

Strategic bombing enjoyed wide public and political support as a symbol of Allied resolve and a response to German aggression. In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives and suffered heavy losses. Advances in technology and tactics, combined with Allied successes on other fronts, led to improved results. By war's end, Allied bombers had razed portions of every major city in Germany and damaged many other targets, including oil facilities and transportation networks. The attacks blunted Germany's economic and military potential, and drew scarce resources into air defence, damage repair, and the protection of critical industries.

Allied aircrew conducted this grueling offensive with great courage against heavy odds. It required vast material and industrial efforts and claimed over 80,000 Allied lives, including more than 10,000 Canadians. While the campaign contributed greatly to enemy war weariness, German society did not collapse despite 600,000 dead and more than 5 million left homeless. Industrial output fell substantially, but not until late in the war. The effectiveness and the morality of bombing heavily-populated areas in war continue to be debated.[2]

If your motivation is to depict these airmen as war criminals for the deaths of 600,000 Germans, I’m afraid you won’t likely be happy with the rewrite. And I know not all of the many angry historians who felt a lobby group prevented the historical truth from coming out will be satisfied. However, I think this new panel does far more than its predecessor to show that historical truth.[3] And it does this by providing a balanced view of the controversy. A visitor to the museum who knew nothing of this campaign now has far more information to make an informed decision about the morality of the bombings, and the Canadian War Museum has done this without removing the facts that appeared in the original panel.

All the same controversial points are still there: the bombing campaign “remains a source of controversy today,” “600,000 [Germans] dead and more than 5 million left homeless.” And, “the morality…continue[s] to be debated.” In fact, the panel goes further and adds more about the problems and shortcomings of the bombing operations that weren’t in the original panel. “German society did not collapse,” and “In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives.” You may not agree entirely with the content of this new panel, but no author is going to please everyone. In a case like this, balance is key, otherwise we risk creating a society of brainwashed zombies.

Not only has the uninformed visitor benefited from the change. Thanks to the new panel, a visitor who came into the museum as a supporter the bombings does not witness a panel which vilifies the airmen, but it does not blindly support what this visitor already believes. As an educated reader, this visitor must confront the facts that challenge the campaign and question his or her belief. Conversely, if the visitor believes the attacks were immoral and ineffectual, he or she likewise must pause to consider the evidence in the panel which does not support that position.

And perhaps most importantly, this new panel is far more likely to spark interest in the debate over the effectiveness and morality of the Allied bombings. By showing both sides, a visitor might be more prompted to learn more so that they can come to a conclusion themselves. By pegging the airmen as immoral as in the former panel, the visitor has no incentive to look more deeply; it’s just too easy to accept what the panel says and keep walking on to the next exhibit.

All it took was an extra 122 words and a little more care in the writing process to put context to a controversy. And that’s a sign of good history.

[1] Adam Crymble. “The Canadian War Museum Controversy” Thoughts on Public History. “

[2] Paul Gessel. “War Museum Produces New Wording for Controversial Text” (accessed Thursday October 11, 2007).

[3] The old panel’s wording can be found at Adam Crymble. “The Canadian War Museum Controversy” Thoughts on Public History. “

1 comment:

Sarah Waugh said...

I agree with you, Adam. It seems that they did manage to come up with a happy medium.