Canada’s National Gallery

During my Christmas visit to Ottawa, I visited the National Gallery with Myshka’s mother and sister.

It was a rapid tour where I focused on statuary. The concrete aggregate work by Ugo Rondione (“We run through a desert on burning feet. All of us are glowing. Our faces look twisted.”) near the group entrance reminds me a bit of one of Bathsheba’s commissions. The dépanneur installation was odd, though it’s easy to read it as about surveillance as the convex mirrors and digital cameras reflect back the visitors exploring it. It also seemed notable to me that so much of the purpose of the shop was dedicated to alcohol (the European painting area has a most unflattering portrayal of drunken excess).

It’s neat to see statues made with such a variety of materials, from marble to plastic patio chairs to some kind of simulated camel hide.

The gallery has an unusually permissive photography policy, with everything in the permanent collection available to be freely photographed. The one time I got shut down was trying to photograph a Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux marble from a private collection, where the guard tried to stop me from even photographing the ‘no photography’ sign.

Ghosts of the Ostfront

I’m surprised I have never mentioned Dan Carlin’s historical podcasts here yet. I got a lot out of “Blueprint for Armageddon“, his six-part history of WWI (source of this account). Listening to his thoroughly-researched and passionately-delivered work has led me back to a number of books by serious historians as well as primary accounts. Those include G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 which I have gone through more than once as an audiobook and Ryan Cornelius’ The Last Battle about the fall of Berlin in 1945.

On the Greyhound trips to Ottawa and back, Myshka and I listened to three of the four episodes in “Ghosts of the Ostfront” — a macabre but instructive account of the Nazi-Soviet war from 1941 to 1945.

There are lots of reasons to be interested in the eastern front in WWII, but the familial connections were at the forefront of my mind. The series does a good job of explaining the situation faced by those in countries between the two great powers during the war, including all those who became double victims oppressed by both the Soviet and Nazi autocracies.

Carlin and his research and production team have lots of other great stuff, from a free discussion with favourite historian and thinker James Burke to his detailed history of the life of Genghis Khan to the unbelievable story of the Anabaptist takeover of Munster in 1534. His preference for the bloody ought to be noted, but to me his work doesn’t seem to revel in violence for its own sake but more to try to discern the broad lessons of history.

Galicia Division controversy

The National Post is reporting on controversial Canadian monuments to Ukrainians who volunteered to fight with the Waffen-SS starting in 1943. A large number of those who fought in the division immigrated to Canada after the war, aided in part by intervention from the Roman Catholic Church. While the immediate context of the controversy is critical comments from the Russian embassy (possibly with questionable motives), some of those quoted advocate more critical thought within the Ukrainian community about the wartime roles of their compatriots:

“It would be refreshing and perhaps a form of self-healing …” writes University of Alberta professor David Marples in a 2007 book on “heroes and villains” in Ukrainian national history, “if Ukrainians could offer a conception of their recent past that looked at all aspects of these events, recognizing in passing that heroes could be criminals.”

One of the monuments in question is at St. Volodymyr Cemetery in Oakville, Ont. It commemorates a major battle, the Brody, fought by the Ukrainian Galician Division of the German Waffen-SS against the Soviet Red Army, during which more than three-quarters of the Ukrainian soldiers perished.

The article also describes potential involvement of future Galician Division soldiers in anti-Semitic actions and war crimes. A spokesperson for the B’nai Brith is quoted saying that they would oppose future such monuments, but do not object to the existing ones remaining in place.

The article mentions the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada (Deschênes Commission) which concluded in 1986 “that members of the Galician Division who immigrated to Canada hadn’t had charges against them substantiated”. I was once able to briefly speak with a former commission member at a Massey College event, but he did little but reiterate the high level conclusions of the commission.

I should read Marples’ book.