Book Review: ‘Atlas of Dark Destinations’ by Peter Hohenhaus



Explore the macabre world of black tourism.

that of Peter Hohenhaus “Atlas of Dark Destinations” (Laurence King Publishing, £ 25, ISBN 98719194719 4) would make a good Christmas present for a serious person interested in history, including the history of technology. It was probably a mistake, however, to release it at the end of October, in time for Halloween, and make it look like a collection of horror stories. A front funeral cover, with the title in bright Gothic red on an absolute black background; a subtitle mentioning “black tourism” – what is it? Sightseeing after dark, like looking for the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Unlike the impression created by the cover design, this is more than just a spooky Halloween read. It doesn’t scare you so much as it makes you think. In my case, it once again made me pity that I had the misfortune of growing up in a social order that was the source of much of the “darkness” of the world.

The back cover, featuring an aerial view of a sunny cityscape with a cheerful Ferris wheel in the foreground, at first glance appears to contrast sharply with the spooky, almost moribund cover. But take a closer look. The photo is of Pripyat, the “dead city” five kilometers from the unfortunate Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, whose entire population was hastily evacuated days after a nuclear disaster, when for many it was already too late.

I happened to visit Pripyat several years after the explosion and I will never forget its crumbling buildings, streets and squares, barely visible under the shroud of wild bushes and ivy, and the deserted fun fair with its rusty Ferris wheel creaking sadly as it did. stirred by the wind, as if it deplored all the sufferings that reckless humanity had unleashed upon itself.

Yes, another sad conclusion that the reader of this Atlas is bound to come to is that, besides totalitarian states, another creator of “dark places” and the human tragedies that result from it has been technology. Technology that has seriously malfunctioned or has been designed specifically for destruction.

The section covering Britain opens with descriptions of two horribly familiar sites – Dounreay and Sellafield – closely followed (for reasons I find it difficult to understand) by Bletchley Park, whom I have always perceived to be a positive and inspiring place, where Nazi secret codes were shattered, hastening the end of WWII. Maybe the Atlas compiler had in mind the tragic (and truly grim) fate of Enigma machine inventor Alan Turing? Alas, the Turing tragedy is not mentioned in the long entrance to Bletchley Park.

Another problem I would tackle with Hohenhaus is his ranking of places in his Atlas. Each site is ranked by stars – from one to five – in the style of the great German writer and guide editor Karl Baedeker. Yet while Baedeker gave his stars primarily to hotels and later nature walks and views, Hohenhaus, who seems to have collected a good deal of his material from the internet, (“like the search for my website,” as he puts it), uses stars to indicate a “dark rating”.

This assessment of the level of darkness and scaring of each site is done in a rather arbitrary fashion. Bletchley Park, for example, has five stars and a dark rating of 2. The infamous KGB-controlled upper floor of the Viru Hotel in Tallinn, now a museum, crammed with listening devices for listening to guest conversations. and other spy equipment, was awarded three stars and a dark rating of 5.

This approach leads to horrific and sometimes offensive trivializations. The Auschwitz extermination camp, near Krakow, is awarded five stars and the maximum black rating of 10. At the same time, Babiy Yar, the site near Kiiv where nearly 200,000 people (the Atlas puts number 100,000), mostly Jews, were executed and their bodies thrown into a ditch score two stars and a dark rating of 6 – lower than the ghost town of Kurchatov in Kazakhstan which scores 7.

Babiy Yar, where many of my own distant relatives perished, is one of the most tragic and “dark” places I have ever seen. Any tourism-related assessment, or “spotlighting” of places like this and Auschwitz is not only tactless, but totally unacceptable, and seriously detracts from the appeal of what is otherwise an excellent book – informative, well written and richly illustrated. I hope that the stars indicating “tourist attractiveness” and the dark notes illustrated with small human skulls will be removed in future editions, along with the whole “tragic rating” approach.

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