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20 March 2015

Tomb raiders: leaders’ graves have come in for posthumous revenge throughout history

Saddam Hussein's demolished tomb is resonant in symbolism, but it is not a unique story.

By James Dawson

The constant stream of tragic news from Iraq over the last year (and decade) means that the recent report from the Associated Press about the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s tomb is merely a footnote. Anyway, what happened to the kitsch concrete and marble edifice is a matter of conjecture – was it targeted, like many historic sites, by Isis because it was idolatrous; did Shia militia deliberately target it; or was it merely collateral damage in the ongoing violence? Whatever the case, this story is resonant in symbolism. But it is not unique, the tombs of prominent people have come in for posthumous revenge throughout history.

One example, across the border from Iraq is the mausoleum of Reza Khan, the Shah of Iran 1925-1941 (and father of the final Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza). In the historic city of Rey, now a southern suburb of Tehran, a rather brutalist mausoleum was built in the Fifties, the son deciding that with his father securely entombed it was safe to pour praise on his memory. However, in 1979 at the start of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khalkhali, later notorious as a “hanging-judge”, led the destruction of Reza Khan’s tomb.

In Europe one notable example is the tomb of President Hindenburg. As a famous Field Marshall and Reichspresident Hindenburg was the one figure with sufficient gravity and power to overrule Hitler, however, he was in his mid-eighties and obligingly soon died. This allowed the Nazis to eulogise Hindenburg and overruling his wishes for burial in the family plot near Hanover they placed the dead President in the pompous Tannenberg Memorial in East Prussia. Another brutalist structure, it resembled a medieval octagonal castle and was designed to commemorate the 1914 Second Battle of Tannenberg, at which Hindenburg had been the victorious commander. What better site to inter the deceased head of state and proclaim Nazi propaganda?

Of course, their 1,000-year rule only lasted 12. With defeat in sight in 1945, Hindenburg’s body was removed and moved back west. The Poles demolished what was left of the memorial in the Fifties. Hindenburg himself was discovered by the Americans in a salt mine along with the coffin of eighteenth century Prussian King Frederick the Great, who had been similarly removed from the Potsdam Garrison Church. Both were reburied quietly in plain graves in the Elizabeth Church in the university city of Marburg in Hesse. Frederick the Great was later moved again to his old Sansoucci Palace in Potsdam but Hindenburg remains in Marburg to this day in a dimly lit corner of the church.

During the French Revolution the graves of the French Kings in the Saint Denis basilica in northern Paris were opened and the bodies thrown into a lime pit. The memorials though were preserved for their artistic value. But another posthumous victim of the revolution was the exiled King James II of England (James VII of Scotland). Having died in exile in France in 1701 he had been accorded full royal honours and placed in the Chapel of St Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines, Paris. His coffin was however, exhumed and put on display in 1793 by the revolutionaries, who destroyed it a year later.

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In Britain revenge was taken, following the Restoration, against Oliver Cromwell. The Lord Protector was interred with a lavish ceremony in Westminster Abbey. The vault was reopened three years later and the body defiled, contradictory stories describe his fate, though is head is now thought to have been interred at his alma mater Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. The site of Cromwell’s vault in Westminster Abbey, however, is now the Air Force Chapel and is marked with a plaque stating it to be “The Burial Place of Oliver Cromwell 1658-1661”. Cambridge and Westminster Abbey are not his only memorials, significantly Cromwell is also commemorated by a statue erected outside the Palace of Westminster in 1899. So desecration of a grave is not always the last word on a controversial leader’s reputation.

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