There’s been a lot of talk lately about what to do with old monuments—whether they should come down, be moved, or remain as-is where they are. In several cases, crowds have taken matters into their own hands and have toppled these statues themselves. For example, in North Carolina, protesters pulled down a Confederate monument outside a government building after the August 2017 white supramicst rally and counter-protests in Charlottesville, VA. Just this evening, in the midst of ongoing protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands—or rather the knee—of a police officer, demonstrators beheaded four Confederate statues in Portsmouth, VA and pulled one down. Earlier this week in England, protesters tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the river.
Various suggestions have been floated on how to deal with statues and monuments that idolize people or ideas that have wound up on the losing side of history, and have since fallen out of favor with the general public. Some want them gone completely. Others say to leave them in place—to do anything otherwise would be erasing history. Other suggestions are to move them out of parks, public squares, government buildings, and into museums or to add additional signs/plaques explaining that the monuments no longer represent the commonly-held beliefs of the communities in which they still stand.
I read this article today that raises some good points I tend to agree with and suggests that statues that have fallen out of favor (or literally fallen over due to neglect) should be exhibited in a ‘statue graveyard’. The article uses the examples (and includes photos) of old Soviet statues lying in battered piles outside the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn. The obvious neglect of these monuments is actually a poignant historical record of how these symbols now relate to Estonian society—in other words, they’ve been laid to rest in a manner befitting the way Estonian society has laid to rest the chapter in their history which these monuments represent. They weren’t entirely destroyed or hidden, but merely moved to a location of lesser prominance and—whether intentional or not—displayed in a way which is a more accurate narrative of how the power and ideology they once represented has been brushed aside by modern Estonia. They’re present, but no longer omnipresent.
The key point is that while these statues and monuments are historical and do allude to the events of the past, the institutions they represent and the historical figures they depict who defended and upheld these flawed institutions have fallen out of favor. Yet, they still feature prominently in public places, towering above plazas and flanking the entrances and hallways of government buildings. The optics of this is more than just ‘historical record’—it sends the message that these figures and the ideology that they represent are esteemed, respected, and championed by the government whose buildings and property they adorn. This concept of how their prominence and positioning gives them symbolic power is key.
Another concern raised in the article is that even when these monuments are moved to museums, they’re still often presented in a way which projects the idea that they are respected, and admired. After all, museums are typically where cultures depict their most prized and revered treasures and artifacts.
A ‘statue graveyard’ would correct this by displaying them in a location and position that is more indicative of their lowered—or past—importance and relevance to current society. I think it makes a lot of sense. You still have the history. Nothing has to be destroyed. Yet, the signaling of government and those in positions of authority/power condoning and supporting what the monuments represent is corrected. They would no longer tower over and dominate in public spaces. I think what these demonstrators are upset about is exactly this. It’s not the history they’re trying to erase. It’s the fact that this symbolism continues to occupy prime real estate in the eyes, in the halls of power, and thus the minds of the societies in which they remain standing. Maybe it’s time to finally lay them to rest, in a statue graveyard. Like other deceased entities resting in graveyards, people would be free to visit and to read the history enshrined in the epitaphs and to remember so they don’t forget. But, they would no longer have to endure going about their daily lives under the foreboding gaze of monumentalized generals and soldiers whose watch duty has long ended.
A popular right-wing talk radio host has a page on his site addressing this issue of Confederate statues. He and a caller discuss Germany, and how reminders of Germany’s Nazi history are preserved, such as the Gestapo headquarters (now a museum), Hitler’s bunker (marked by a sign), and Holocaust memorials. The page eventually devolves into a rant about how the Democratic Party sucks and how the other party is better at fundraising or something irrelevant to this topic, which is the usual conclusion to be expected from a right-wing talk radio host. On the Democratic Party sucking, he’s not wrong, but I would add that both parties suck, and it’s not just the ‘Democratic Party’ calling for a re-thinking of Confederate symbols in modern society.
Regardless, it is absolutely true that Germany has retained many reminders of its past, and I agree that this is very important for historical education. However, a key difference between Nazi-era historical sites in Germany and Confederate statues in the US, is that in Germany, Nazi iconography is not presented in a way that gives it prominence, glorifies it, or suggests that the modern government celebrates its figures. There’s no 80 foot statues of Hitler in public squares, no bronze SS officers with degen swords and pistols in the parks, nor Nazi flags flying on government property.
Albania has also struggled to figure out what to do with monuments of the past that have exceeded their expiration date. In 1968, large white letters made of painted rocks were constructed in the side of a mountain to spell ‘ENVER’ as a birthday gift/tribute to Enver Hoxha—dictator at the time, and most likely ordered by him.
Hoxha died in 1985 and his regime crumbled. The subsequent government decide that the tribute to Hoxha had to go, so in 1994 it ordered the Army to remove the white letters in the mountain, and they did so tackling the problem in the most military way possible—by setting the mountain on fire with napalm dropped from planes. It sort of worked in the sense that it made it harder to see from a distance by blackening the letters, but technically the structure of the rock letters still remained.
Even after his death, and well after his regime, a band of loyal Hoxha supporters remained and wanted the old monument back, so they paid the original artist to re-paint the rocks in 1997. The monument to Enver lived once more!
However, that’s not the end of the story. Later, the same artist—at the behest of a documentary film crew—altered the monument by swapping the first two letters to spell ‘NEVER’ as a swipe at the old Hoxha regime, but also in protest to the lack of progress made by the corrupt government that replaced it.
I like this example of re-purposing old monuments to give them new meaning, and it also feels more creative to me than simply trying to kill it with fire!
↩︎ Even if that happens to be an extensive collection of male genitalia from a variety of species, which is what the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavík apparently specializes in. I actually stayed just a couple of blocks from this museum during a trip to Iceland but unfortunately I never did visit this particular attraction. Shame.
↩︎ The Berlin Wall is also mentioned by the caller, but construction on that didn’t begin until 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)—well after the Nazis. I think the host and the caller have their history a bit confused on that one. East Germany was controlled by the USSR after WWII, and was not actually very democratic, although it did hold elections and attempted to at least create an illusion of participatory democracy. The official name of East Germany containing the word ‘democratic’ is a good example of the sort of doublespeak I mention in What’s in a Name?
↩︎ It’s kind of funny to me actually that advocates for preserving icons of the Confederacy in public places and property—including its flag—would use Germany as an example because Germany is actually a better example of making them illegal. Punishment for public display of ‘propaganda material and symbols of forbidden parties’ (outside of educational and artistic purposes) can be a fine or up to three years in prison!