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‘Heritage is vulnerable in times of war, but it is also resilient’

23 November 2020
Martijn Eickhoff
Martijn Eickhoff

Heritage is vulnerable in times of war and its destruction can sometimes form part of genocidal processes. The Nazi book burnings are a prime example of that. But too little is known about the resilience of heritage and the power that violence can give it. Martijn Eickhoff believes that the latter makes research into heritage all the more relevant.

Text: Gert Gritter, Communication UG, photos: Jeroen van Kooten

Eickhoff (1967) is Professor of Archaeology and Heritage of War and Mass Violence at the University of Groningen. He is also a senior researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In his work, which focuses on objects, places and spatial structures, he investigates how violence in Asia and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have continued to have an impact on societies.

The ruined city of Banten

‘I first realized how much we tend to underestimate the resilience of heritage when I was doing research in Indonesia. Obviously, a building or an object that has been destroyed never returns, but it’s not always completely gone. Memory and immaterial culture are not so easily erased. A real turning point for me was a visit to the port city of Banten in Indonesia, which was virtually razed to the ground by the Dutch at the beginning of the nineteenth century for economic reasons. The ruins, archaeological monuments, are now part of Indonesia’s heritage. Indonesian archaeologists from the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta pointed out to me that I focused too much on Dutch violence and therefore on Indonesian victimization. For them, the population's cultural resistance was the more important object of research. We have now set up a project that focuses on the emergence of a culture of resistance in Banten, as well as the role that places and objects of violence play in that.’

Ruins of the Dalam of Banten, painting by Steven Adriaan Buddingh (Wikimedia Commons)
Ruins of the Dalam of Banten, painting by Steven Adriaan Buddingh (Wikimedia Commons)

Inclusive history

In the past, it was mainly archaeologists and architects who set the standards for defining and conserving heritage. Although UNESCO has made a lot of changes, the idea that heritage is a unique and valuable “masterpiece” for mankind as a whole remains. Eickhoff considers this to be a Western construction, regardless of how much support there is for it. There is an obvious connection to colonial times, when the colonial powers believed that they had to protect, and could appropriate, heritage. It’s good to look at this closely and, in so doing, to talk about the violent side as well. This already happens as part of critical heritage studies. However, there is a danger of once again excluding local and transregional approaches to the preservation of heritage. After all, these objects and places were often cherished in all kinds of ways for many centuries, and this continued to be the case even when the colonial powers took over. ‘We therefore need to move towards an inclusive history of heritage creation.’


Eickhoff studied new and theoretical history at the University of Amsterdam. In 1992-93 he took courses in prehistory and protohistory at the Freie Universität in Berlin. He experienced firsthand the aftermath of Die Wende (1989-1990). ‘That really left a mark on me, the fact that political structures can collapse in such a short period of time. But the same goes for what was left behind. I lived in East Berlin; on the corner of my street there was a police station and everyone knew that the “old staff” still worked there. It was fascinating to talk to East German prehistorians. Everything they knew was suddenly turned upside down and they somehow had to get on with their lives. These experiences influenced my interest in profound social changes and helped to shape my academic career. For example, my PhD thesis was about Dutch archaeologists and the confrontation with National Socialism, both in Germany in the 1930s and during the years of occupation and the post-war Cold War period.’

Eickhoff: Too little is known about the resilience of heritage and the power that violence can give it.
Eickhoff: Too little is known about the resilience of heritage and the power that violence can give it.

Discipline in development

Eickhoff has been appointed at the GIA, the Groningen Institute of Archaeology. He sees many opportunities for cooperation, interaction and exchange between historians and archaeologists. ‘Archaeology and the heritage of war and mass violence represent an evolving field of research. Each group contributes its own expertise. This is happening around Camp Westerbork, for example, where both historians and archaeologists are doing important research. If we don’t allow ourselves to be limited by disciplinary boundaries, we can learn a lot from each other and work very well together. For example, we can link microhistory to long-term processes, conduct community-based research, create visualizations or integrate places and things in the scientific narrative about the past.’

Memory Landscapes

The Memory Landscapes project is a good example of this method. The assumption was that, long after the event, landscape is often a framework for memories of mass violence, even if the subject is taboo or officially denied. The port city of Semarang on the island of Java was used as a case study. In 1965, there was fierce anti-communist violence here, as there was throughout Indonesia. It is estimated that half a million (suspected) communists were killed. The project collaborated with students and staff of the Universitas Katolik Soegijapranata (UNIKA) to reconstruct this repressed part of Semarang’s past through interviews with those involved, the identification of locations of violence, research into material remains and digital reconstructions. The project stimulated the collective memory. At a mass grave, which did not officially exist but was known to the locals, a small monument was even erected on the initiative of a journalist from Semarang.

Genocidal archaeology

‘I’m currently helping to set up a research project on archaeology and Jewish forced labour in Eastern Europe, which was captured by the Nazis. We are particularly interested in Łódź, which, during the Second World War, had the second largest ghetto for Jews in occupied Poland (after Warsaw), also known as Ghetto Litzmannstadt. Not too far away from there, near Lutomiersk, German archaeologists found traces of a medieval Viking burial ground, beneath a Jewish cemetery, in 1941. To excavate the Viking site they used Jewish forced labourers, who had to dig through the Jewish cemetery. Archaeology was to prove that the area had been Germanic ever since early times. The excavation itself became a macabre ritual of ethnic cleansing. We are going to investigate this using the Memory Landscapes methodology. One of the main things to consider in a project like this is how to approach it in a way that respects everyone’s interests.’

Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis has affected Eickhoff’s work, as it has affected almost everyone. The project in Łódź has come to a standstill and his inaugural speech, scheduled for February 2021, has been postponed for a year. ‘In that respect, the “lockdown” has also turned out to be a “slowdown”...’

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Martijn Eickhoff

Last modified:23 November 2020 11.13 a.m.
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