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Cities into Battlefields

Metropolitan Scenarios, Experiences and Commemorations of Total War


Edited by Stefan Goebel and Derek Keene


Historical Urban Studies Series

Farnham, Surrey & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011

Hardcover. xi+239 p. ISBN 9780754660385. Ł65.00 / $124.95


Reviewed by Robert Morley

University of Saskatchewan




Urban conflict has a well-established historiography, exemplified by Antony Beevor’s excellent books on Stalingrad and Berlin, and urban battles continue to draw the interest of historians. However, much of this literature has explored urban settings within the context of modern warfare. As a result, the wars waged and battles fought become the focus of the historical analysis, rather than the social and cultural impact on cities themselves or their residents. The collection of essays found in Cities into Battlefields brings together a group of important scholars who hope to correct this concern with the historiography of urban combat by methodologically approaching their subject with urban history, rather than military history, first in mind. The result is an interesting and innovative collection of essays that trace the impact of warfare on urban environments and urban dwellers by using class, gender, social, and cultural methodologies. Each of the essays is extremely well researched and written. They also situate the history of urban warfare in the growing historiography of spaces (or the so-called spatial turn) along with well-established research on collective memory. At the same time, they effectively use non-governmental sources, including memorials, personal memoirs, maps, and even cities themselves. They argue that urbanites actually had considerable agency in how they forecasted, experienced and remembered total war, which proves to be a valuable counterargument to suggestions that civilians are mere peons in the larger framework of a warring nation-state.

As the title suggests, the book is organized into scenarios, experiences and commemorations. It opens with a lengthy and interesting introductory essay by Stefan Goebel and Derek Keene (the book’s editors) that outlines historiographic context, including the need to treat total warfare as an urban catastrophe and most importantly, the need to adopt a more metropolitan understanding of warfare and the city’s centrality in modern industrialized conflict. Indeed, total war in the twentieth century hinged on the city. They also draw out the important distinctions between the various ways urbanites experienced total war: isolated from the front, under foreign occupation or enduring combat and aerial bombardment. The shortest section of the book is on scenarios. This is unfortunate, since there are other subjects that could have been explored. Nonetheless, Susan Grayzel’s piece on imagined destruction in Great Britain between 1908 and 1939 excellently highlights how science fiction, literature and film can prepare a civilian population for the experience of urban destruction in the event of actual war.

The book effectively transitions from scenarios to experiences with Peter Stansky’s essay on the first day of the London Blitz. His and Grayzel’s essays complement each other nicely and the reader is able to draw out clear and interesting points of comparison between imaginary bombardment and reality. Moving from Stansky’s essay, the majority of the book is spent exploring the experiences of total war and most major European centres are addressed: Paris, Vienna, Warsaw, Budapest, Stalingrad and Berlin. Each essay in the experiences section utilises a different methodological framework in drawing out how the urban dwellers experienced warfare. Or, how they avoided experiencing total war, as was the case in Paris. In doing so, they establish methodological frameworks that can be applied to other urban centres.  

The time period and geographic focus of this section is somewhat restricted, as it tends to focus on the experience of the two World Wars. This acts as a call for future scholarship that can analyse other urban conflict experiences during the twentieth century, such as Hue during the Vietnam War, or Balkan cities during the 1990s. The book may have been well served by more explicitly comparing the experiences of European and Asian civilians during the Second World War. The vast majority of the analysis of experience focuses on European cities, while there certainly could have been room for an essay on the Japanese experience of being bombed (which would have tied in nicely with the fine papers on Japanese commemoration) or the Chinese experience of being occupied.

Jovana Kneževic and Maureen Healy explore the use of information (and disinformation) in urban settings during wartime in their analyses of Belgrade during the First World War and Vienna during both the World Wars, respectively. In doing so, they highlight the important ways urban dwellers coped with modern warfare through rumour, camaraderie and the construction of enemies. Kneževic argues Belgrade residents used rumour and gossip to try to feel normal during the strain of total war and Austrian control of information. Curiously, those enemies in Vienna tended not to be British, American or Russian, but German, particularly Adolf Hitler. Her essay highlights the fascinating possibility that in some instances those on the home front were not necessarily engaged in the same conflict as the soldiers at the front, an issue that has been explored by Janet S.K. Watson’s Fighting Different Wars.

Tim Cole’s essay on ghettoisation in Warsaw and Budapest effectively applies new methodologies concerning the construction and manipulation of space in exploring how the Holocaust helped define the war experience in those two cities. Yet, he is very careful to note that German efforts to construct “imaginary spaces” were affected by real “Jew” and “non-Jew” concerns. The experiences section concludes with an excellent essay by Antony Beevor that not only cautions against drawing too many similarities between urban conflicts, but also looks to the future of urban warfare as one of insurgency and counterinsurgency. To do this he points to the important changes in urban conflict over time, highlighting the particular savageness of Stalingrad and Berlin was the result of ideology, not combat tactics. To assume contemporary and future urban conflicts would resemble these maelstroms ignores that fundamental point. To Beevor, that was the critical folly of the Western media in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War. This point is made throughout the entire book, as each city explored experienced total war in very different ways. 

The book also effectively taps the historiographic trend in the study of collective memory. In this regard, Stefan Goebel’s essay on the creation and use of collective memory in Coventry during the Cold War is particularly fascinating. He argues that local governments played a critical role in establishing Coventry as a site of commemorating aerial bombardment. In this regard, it is argued that collective memory depends on the efforts of local officials and politicians. He also makes the important point that those who join the boom in the study of collective memory should focus their research on communities, rather than the State because of the difficulties in effectively assessing national memories. Lisa Yoneyama and Julie Higashi also address the difficulties in constructing urban memories of total war in their papers on Hiroshima and Tokyo, respectively. Both explore the importance of domestic and international politics in shaping the memories of particularly traumatic wartime events, such as the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. 

The book ends with a fitting conclusion from Jay Winter. He highlights its four fundamental categories of analysis: gender, class, race and remembrance and how urban areas can act as important centres for their study. He then points to another foundational theme of the book: studying urban history is an effective way to avoid confined national historiography and move toward transnational studies of history. 

One minor concern in an otherwise excellent book is each essay’s attempt to connect their subject matter to the events of September 11, 2001; the renewed interest in urban catastrophe following September 11 acted as the impetus for this book. Yet, often this connection is drawn out tangentially or an as an afterthought. Beyond this criticism, this book can be recommended to anyone with an interest in urban history, memory, or military history.



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