Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Tale of (World War) 2 Memorials

Last weekened, I had the chance to see the Brazilian World War II memorial/museum. Many people don't realize Brazil was even involved in World War II, which is part of the fact that people don't remember it was a WORLD war at all that involved far more nation-states than just England, the U.S., the U.S.S.R., France, Italy, Germany, and Japan. States as varying as Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Romania, and others participated through both material and troop support, not to mention all the colonies and conquered nations that fought. This was a truly global event, and Brazil did not sit out.

After displaying some pro-Fascist tastes (and certainly employing Fascist sympathizers), Getúlio Vargas elected to join the Allies after a number of Brazilian ships were torpedoed by German U-Boats. BY November of 1944, Brazil had sent its FEB (Força Expedicionaria Brasileira, or Brazilian Expeditionary Force) to Italy. There, the FEB fought against Germans from November 1944 to April 1945 in the area between Pisa and Milan. The Brazilians successfully forced the Germans back, but their victories in battles like Monte Prano, Montese, and Fornovo cost them the lives of 462 soldiers.

Memorializing these 462 soldiers is part of the Memorial's function. A fountain falls below the structure, and you can walk among markers commemmorating the 462 Brazilian soldiers. Not only this, the mausoleum records on the wall all of the names of those who died on Brazilian ships, in the Brazilian navy, or in the merchant marine. Above, there is a patriotic museum showing newspaper headlines from throughout the war, weapons, materiel (field phones, clothing, medals, etc.), and even a jeep from the war. There is also a giant memorial tracing five "stages" from the Brazilians' departure from Rio to Italy and Back.

Obviously, all is directed towards patriotism, sometimes with a bit of the desire to look like Europe and the U.S. coming through. This is most obvious in the commemmoration to the nurses in the museum, the placard of which talks about how the 67 Brazilian nurses in Europe worked and sacrificed themselves "as selflessly as their American counterparts." The headlines of papers from the time are unabashedly patriotic (for obvious reasons). The other noticeable way in which this builds a sense of patriotism for the nation-state is rather unique. Before entering the Mausoleum, you can read about Brazil's naval exploits throughout history, including their current activities. These signs particularly promote Brazil's importance in peace-keeping efforts (including East Timor in 1999, Haiti from 2004 to the present, and their role in protecting Dakar in World War I). The efforts towards a neutral stance are good, but one can still see (if you can read Portuguese) a "look what we do for the world!!! We are part of the vanguard!" tone, as well. However, the memorial itself is beautiful, with the conjunction of modern architecture and overlooking Guanabara bay, providing excellent (and noise-free, which is no small feat) views of Sugarloaf mountain and the start of the "downtown" area in Rio.

One last intersting note to me is the timing of such memorials. Brazil, riding high on a sense of nationalism and economic growth, embodied by the successful establishment of Brasília, finished its World War II Memorial in 1960, forty-four years before the U.S. completed its memorial. I'm not quite certain why the discrepancy exists. Certainly, Brazil was proud of its involvement and used its participation with what it perceived as the "Great Powers" of the world gave Brazilians confidence in their nation-state, a fact seen in the rhetoric and patriotism in the World War II Memorial. But why it took Americans so long I don't know/understand. Only recently, as World War II veterans are diminishing in number each year, did we become concerned with their story and memorializing them (the Tom Brokaw effect), while Brazil has put WW II at the head of a sense of nation for decades, rhetorically (which the U.S. DID do) and physically (which the U.S. was rather slow to do). It definitely provides for a fascinating comparison of ways of memorializing the armed forces and the nation-state, and for any ever visiting Rio, it's definitely worth checking out.