Diefenbunker

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The Emergency Government Headquarters or “Diefenbunker” located in Carp, Ontario is the largest such shelter in Canada. I will take a balanced approach to the possible uses of this historic site, whether, on the one hand, it should be used in order to claim certain facts and experiences of Canada during the Cold War, or whether such a site presents grounds for skepticism in terms of its use as public history. It should be noted that these arguments will take place strictly in the context of the Diefenbunker and issues surrounding this particular site or museum. There are obvious merits to accepting the Diefenbunker as an objective representation of the Cold War, foremost among them as a source of national and even personal identity. Because so many people still living today experienced the Cold War the Diefenbunker constitutes a source of personal memory and experience. Conversely there are arguments against the use of the Diefenbunker as an objective source of public history and memory. Such arguments take issue with the concepts of public identity, public consensus, and the overarching narratives we tell ourselves as a nation.

The Diefenbunker presents, literally, a concrete primary source of Canada’s Cold War experience. This particular shelter may resonate even more because of its relative importance being the primary fallback position of the top tier of government given a nuclear attack. There is a tangible aura of authority and gravity to the site, an atmosphere that has been self-consciously maintained and enhanced through its conversion into a public museum. For those of us who did not live through the Cold War, the Diefenbunker brings the narrative of this international conflict into reality. It is evidence, or proof, of what has heretofore only been words on a page, or second hand verbal accounts. For others that have lived through these events, there is a similar reaction to the reality of it, but augmented by personal memory. Personal memories of the Cold War could either reinforce or conflict within the Diefenbunker itself, which raises a host of problems we shall get to in a minute.

As a representation of historical events, even if one lived through them, the Diefenbunker serves different purposes to different audiences. Here we must differentiate between the historically untrained public and historians. For the non-historian audience, the Diefenbunker serves to locate national identity. The shelter answers the questions of what Canada as a whole went through, felt, reacted to, the steps taken to safeguard the country in perilous times. The concepts national narratives are constructed around are all present in the Diefenbunker. The visitor leaves the site with a shared sense of empowerment that certain individuals (representing Canada as a whole) did what was necessary to protect this country. This is the civic or national faith that David Glassberg says undercuts ethnic and class divisions.[1] He is speaking of the politics of public history and the responsibility this history has to cultural knowledge. Thus the merits of the Diefenbunker lie in unifying an overarching national identity.

The consequences of not allowing for an objective view towards sites such as the Diefenbunker not only take away from a collective Canadian identity, but from an authoritative source of public history as well. Again, we must delineate between historians and non-historians. For the non-historian an accepted, objective view of the past makes things much simpler. There is no reason to doubt, nor could there be, the existence and purpose of a site such as the Diefenbunker. Some of the purposes that this site delivers are the fear and reality of nuclear attack, the foresight and deliberation through which the bunker was created, and Canada’s ability to combat this fear and uncertainty. As long as we accept these messages we can accept a more unified, cohesive concept of nationhood.

However, things become much more problematic for the historian, as we are now in a position to critically analyze the messages of the Diefenbunker, and its use a source of public history. The notion of an objective view of the past as represented by public history has been criticized by many, “the meaning of a historical book, film, or display is not intrinsic, determined solely by the intention of the author, but changes as audiences actively reinterpret what they see and hear by placing it in alternative contexts derived from their diverse social backgrounds.”[2] This relativism applies to all history, but what is particular to the Diefenbunker is the way it is institutionalized; that is, how the concept of subjectivity is situated in the context of the Diefenbunker. As a building or monument, the Diefenbunker can be read as part of the landscape, but like landscape there are countless ways to convey or communicate the presence and purpose of the object according to each individual.

One of the main reasons for skepticism about the Diefenbunker is because of memory. Here, the use of memory is not relative to those that lived through the Cold War, and those that did not; it is simply used in reference to all past events. Natalie Zemon Davis and Randolph Starn wrote in the introduction to Representations’ special issue on memory, "But this is Pierre Nora’s point: we distinguish lieux de mémoire, he insists, because we no longer live in a world suffused with memory or fully committed to overarching ideological narratives - so, for example, The Triumph of Western Civilization, of the Nation-State, of the Proletariat, etc. - defining what is supposed to be memorable."[3] Thus the Diefenbunker can be seen as an attempt to “define what is supposed to be memorable,” because we have lost a universal and superimposed grand narrative of nation. However, David Neufeld raises the point that, “the Cold War has yet to become an integral part of Canadian national identity.”[4] Although Neufeld in talking about national identity in an official, institutionalized sense, it begs the question, if we have lost an accepted version of Canada’s narrative, will the Diefenbunker prove a valid substitute for public memory.

Steven Knapp’s main question is about the viability of designated sites of memory such as the Diefenbunker. He poses it thus, “why aren't narratives of events in our actual past simply replaceable by other narratives that meet our criteria of symbolic relevance?”[5] This goes hand in hand with Glassberg’s idea (mentioned above) that there is no intrinsic meaning in historical phenomenon, but only the meaning we take from it. If one accepts Glassberg’s and others’, relativism, than the Diefenbunker loses is authority as a representative narrative of Canada’s Cold War experience. The messages conveyed by the Diefenbunker are no longer (or have never been) under the power of the site itself. This problem is compounded by collective memory of which the Diefenbunker represents, but does not create. When discussing power, it is important to note the separation between the origination and the representation. The narrative of the Cold War experience is not contingent on the Diefenbunker; rather, it is the other way around.

Furthermore, what authority we can derive from the Diefenbunker as a site of collective memory is inherently political because it is public and shared. Pierre Nora says of the relationship between history and memory, “this national definition of the present imperiously demanded justification through the illumination of the past.”[6] The ways in which we define the present, especially the collective or shared present, have unavoidable political connotations. And one of the Diefenbunker’s purposes is to illuminate the past in order to define present day Canada.

If we accept the Diefenbunker as a representation of public history and memory then we must do so by giving consideration to what these concepts mean. For some, an objective explanation of the Cold War makes the messages of the Diefenbunker easy to understand. However, if we raise doubts about the nature or viability of public history and especially memory then these doubts should be considered. We should not read the purpose of the Diefenbunker in a narrow sense, but rather open up the discussion to broader concepts of how to represent history and why. The Diefenbunker is a good example of how the narrative of nation has been institutionalized, but it is only one example of a type of history that commits itself to a narrow view. The question remains whether we should accept this narrow view of nation in order to make a solid claim of a “Canadian” experience, or allow for critical analysis.

  1. David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” The Public Historian, vol. 1, no. 8 (1996): 12.
  2. Ibid, 10.
  3. Natalie Z. Davis, Randolph Starn, “Introduction,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 3.
  4. David Neufeld, “Commemorating the Cold War in Canada: Considering the DEW Line,” The Public Historian, vol. 20, no. 1 (1998): 9.
  5. Steven Knapp, “Collective Memory and the Actual Past,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 131.
  6. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 10.