Why are tourists still interested in Europe's wars?

Why are tourists still interested in Europe's wars?

Why are tourists still interested in Europe's wars?

Updated 11 November 2017, 7:35 AEDT

Millions flock to Europe each year, more interested in its World War I and II sites and military past than its rich culture and modern achievements.

Millions flock to Europe each year, more interested in its World War I and II sites and military past than its rich culture and modern achievements. It's a billon-dollar business, but it has some locals wishing tourists wanted more than the war.

On a continent shaped by centuries of conflict, Europe's war sites, monuments and museums dot every country and still inform national politics and identity.

Annual events like Remembrance Day continue to offer sombre contemplation and warn youth who can visit the battlefields and graves of Europe's many wars.

But amid resurgent European nationalism, there is temptation to use the historical record for new political gain.

And in an era of mass tourism, war is also good for business.

On the beaches

France is the most visited country in the world. In 2016, 82.5 million tourists flocked to see Paris, Provence and the Cote d'Azur.

And German bunkers.

The remains of Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" dot the Normandy coastline, enormous concrete bunkers designed to repel the Allied invasion that came on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The bunkers failed, but they've proven successful tourist attractions.

Tourisme Normandie estimates that in 2016, 4.6 million tourists came to Normandy specifically to visit D-Day and Battle of Normandy sites, what it calls "remembrance tourism".

They brought with them about 1.5 billion euros in 2016. In turn, the line between pilgrimage and profiteering can blur along the coast.

At the American sector, tourists can enjoy the "unforgettable experience" of a driving tour in a wartime jeep, while they take in the killing fields of Omaha beach (for 75 euros).

"Liberty" and "Overlord" gift shops line seaside towns, offering tour groups made-in-china D-Day kitsch paraphernalia.

From cemetery to sightseeing

A few kilometres away, vast Allied and German cemeteries are testament to a different price put on victory.

After the world wars, pilgrimage to such graves constituted "war tourism".

Now, they too have been absorbed by the standard tourism industry, particularly since the World War I centenary.

"From 2013 to 2014 we saw a massive 64 per cent jump in visitors," says Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

"In 2017, (graves in) Bayeux alone had more than 160,000 visitors."

The commission maintains the graves of 1.7 million war dead with annual funding from Commonwealth governments, including Australia. At each site the gravestones are free of mould and cracks, the grass immaculately cut.

Public funding removes the quest for profit, but it hasn't stopped the need for innovation, even at century-old graveyards.

"Younger visitors are increasingly looking to find information about the men who died and the symbolism of structures via their mobile device, rather than a printed leaflet," Francis says.

But Normandy's German gravesites tell a different story.

There are no apps to download and the remains of 11,887 German soldiers are stacked in mausoleums.

A faded bouquet of flowers holds the message in German, "To my father, may we one day meet."

It's a sombre contrast to the celebratory consumerism of the "Overlord" gift shops nearby.

Poland's culture wars

Some 78 years after the first shots of World War Two were fired in the Polish city of Gdansk, a battle is still being fought.

Earlier this year, the gleaming Museum of the Second World War opened in Gdansk. It's a striking monument to the 5.6 million lives lost in Poland in the war that levelled Europe.

But a month later, the museum's founding director was sacked by the Polish government, which is led by the extreme right Law and Justice party (PiS).

Their grounds were unapologetically nationalistic. Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Glinski says it was a decision in response to "the social expectations of adequate care of places related to the heroism of Polish soldiers in the first hours and days of World War II."

In other words, its founding director, the historian Pawel Machcewicz, had strayed from the romantic nationalist war narrative that the party's right-wing voters value.

"For the right wing, history is their property. Our museum was a contradiction to this narrative and Polish tradition. Any alternative vision of history is perceived as a threa

At the museum, Karol, a young Polish entrepreneur makes a blunt assessment of the controversy, blaming the reshaping of history for political gain.

"The PiS government uses these myths of a romantic and tragic Poland to create a new image of Poland. But until we have jobs and youth stop leaving Poland, that's all just bullshit," he says.

Inside the museum, the exhibits have not yet changed.

At first it is hard to see how exhibits that devote much of their space to the Polish wartime experience don't adhere to a Polish story.

But that story is presented within a global context beside Japan, America and even Germany suffering from carpet-bombing.

"I had the audacity to devote space to other nations — this apparently made us subservient to Angela Merkel and the EU," Machcewicz says.

"They accused us of presenting the Soviets and Nazis as something positive because we showed actual propaganda posters. Well, we need to show actual propaganda to explain how it manipulated citizens, but not to promote the messages to visitors!"

Firing a museum director may seem innocuous, but it is disconcerting that in the 21st century European Union, a public servant was dismissed to secure government authority over history itself.

Saying 'never again' to war

In Sarajevo, Dutch tourist Fanny Verkmijlen winces as she looks at graphic photos of dead and wounded children.

The photos are from Bosnia's 1991-1995 war, displayed at the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide.

"With Facebook, we see images from Syria, but it's censored, we don't see this shocking stuff," says the university student.

"I'm going to leave very depressed, but it's valuable to share this, even if it's terrible. Everyone back home should see this."

That's precisely the goal of the museum's founder, former Bosnian general Jasmin Meskovic.

"We have to show the truth of what war looks like to convince people 'never again'," he says.

Meskovi was a POW; his private museum showcases Serbian torture devices like electrical cables, whips and an axe.

"Everyone knows about the siege of Sarajevo, but village massacres and prison torture are still relatively unknown", he explains.

One room presents a scene of torture at a Serb prison using old mannequins, as the museum ventures uncomfortably towards carnival haunted house.

In a country where different ethnicities have competing views of events, such displays can cause antagonism.

"Yes, Croats and Serbs have taken offence, but they can't deny it. It's fact," insists Meskovic.

"We're not government funded because you need a Bosniak, Serb and Croat representative for cultural funding. No Serb would agree to take part in the museum."

The museum shows the post-war challenge of educating for reconciliation versus using wartime grievances to score political points.

Sell what you have

But for some Bosnians, the war presents opportunity.

Elis is a young hostel owner who offers private tours of the city.

"I take people through the Ottoman old town, show them the mosques, but they only ever ask where the Serbs were shooting from. So I take them to look at ruins and where the guns fired from," he says.

"We're more than just the war, we have a beautiful culture."

But in a country with 40 per cent unemployment, 30-year-old Elis is pragmatic.

"We have to sell what we have and what people want, and what we have is the war.

History's tightrope walk

"Jump! Jump!" screams a German teenager to his friends, as they leap over the monoliths at Berlin's labyrinth-like Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Their teacher yells at them to get down as a security guard tells the boys to leave.

Other tourists take selfies between the geometric rows.

For the city's tourism board, reconciling Berlin's booming tourism industry with its Nazi past is a constant ""gradtwenderung" (tightrope walk).

The board's Christian Tanzler speaks of the challenges in balancing "value of profit" and "value of memory".

"Morally, we have a duty to present that openly to visitors, especially the Holocaust.

"For our children who grew up in a free society, we need to somehow inform them of their responsibility to never repeat the past," Tanzler says.

"They need to know this is not Hollywood and not for selfies."

Fixated on the war

A group of four Australian women are taking the Warsaw Uprising walking tour. For two hours, these women from the Blue Mountains learn about Polish resistance to German occupiers.

"In Australia our identity doesn't have anything to do with war, we just cover up war, so it's interesting to see that identity here," says Tamara, a university student.

"Especially for our generation in Australia, we've never known any war at all," adds Malory.

A teenager strolls past in a T-shirt emblazoned with a Warsaw Uprising soldier.

The impassioned tour guide tells heroic stories, brutal statistics and accounts of betrayal by the Allies and then the Russians. It's very much in line with the PiS government's approved wartime narrative.

But for the visiting Australians, it reveals Poland's national anxieties.

"The war seems to still be open here, it's like they're forced to remember," says Becky.

"They're still afraid of their borders changing."

"It's a bit like Poland is fixated on the war," adds her mother Kathy, "but hearing this today helps put the puzzle pieces together."

History repeats itself

Back in Gdansk, the Museum of the Second World War concludes not with the defeat of Nazi Germany, but images of current wars in Ukraine and Aleppo: history repeats in front of visitors.

Similarly, Machcewicz sees his own firing as a disturbing sign of the times.

"The actions of the current regime are against basic pillars of democracy and genuine Polish history," he says.

"When we started building the museum eight years ago, the world was different.

"Now the world is unstable like in the 1930s: Ukraine, Trump, Brexit, Syria, terror — it all makes such a museum more necessary."

Credits

Photography and words: Christopher Bobyn

Edited and produced by: Annika Blau and Leigh Tonkin