The events in Charlottesville this summer have precipitated an intense debate across the US about how to deal with the more unsavoury aspects of history. Overnight, statues of Confederate leaders across the states were pulled down by protestors. While this knee-jerk response by activists has faced criticism from historians and locals, it seems fairer when contextualised in the inflammatory rhetoric of President Trump whose clumsy defence of the statues sparked accusations of white supremacism.

However, in some sense neither response – either glorifying these statues or summarily tearing them down – seems wholly adequate or right. Indeed, this is a debate which has been raging for decades in countries across Europe, with a search for as inoffensive a compromise as possible continuing to elude most nations.

Germany v. its Nazi past: a model?

When people think of Europe in terms of ‘dealing with the past’, their focus inevitably turns to Germany. The country has been praised for how it has decisively broken with its dark history, bringing in laws banning all Nazi symbols or signals, while investing millions in educational resources and Holocaust monuments.

However, this summer an uncomfortable discussion was resurrected after the discovery of a church bell in the tiny village of Herxheim am Berg, near Frankfurt. It was emblazoned with the slogan ‘All for the Fatherland, Adolf Hitler’. After furious national discussion about what to do with this bell, it still chimes daily despite being stamped with a swastika. As a historical object contained within a listed building, German law is powerless to force its removal. The mayor of the town recently resigned after defending the bell’s presence a little too vigorously in a television interview.

Other ongoing difficulties the country faces include whether or not to preserve Hitler’s parade grounds in Nuremberg, currently left in such a state of disrepair that soon the public won’t be allowed in for their own safety. Some argue that they should leave it to decay, while others are calling for the site to be preserved as a ‘warning from history’, although this could play into the hands of neo-Nazis.

Spain and ‘the Pact of Silence’

Other countries are facing similar dilemmas. Spain’s ‘pact of silence’ – to forgive and forget all that happened between the Spanish Civil War and the transition to democracy after 1975 – has been gradually unwinding for years. The ‘Historical Memory Law’, passed in 2007 to ‘de-Franco-ise’ public spaces, has been fairly effective, although it still hasn’t healed the nation of its gaping civil war wounds. All equestrian statues of Franco have been pulled down, and in 2016 Madrid City Council agreed to an array of gradual street name changes.

Photo:Contendo Estrelas (Flickr); License: CC BY-SA 2.0. Valle de los Caidos

However, the gigantic ‘Valle de los Caídos’ (Valley of the Fallen), the complex just outside Madrid which houses the dictator’s tomb, still stands defiantly. The ruling Partido Popular refuses to exhume Franco and bury him elsewhere, despite growing protests and clear evidence that the tomb has become a site of pilgrimage for neo-fascists. They say it would only ‘stir up’ painful memories. The debate rages on.

France’s ‘Vichy Syndrome’

Similarly, France also has a controversial past to deal with. Over the last decades, public spaces have been gradually cleared of any references to the Nazi occupation. In 2011, the last street in France bearing the name of Marshal Pétain, the disgraced leader of the Vichy regime and Nazi collaborator, disappeared from the northern village of Tremblois-lѐs-Carignan, albeit not without controversy.

In France as well, the wounds of collaboration have not necessarily healed. It took fifty years for a French president to finally admit that the French government had actively supported the Nazis.

But even today traces of collective amnesia, known as ‘Vichy Syndrome’, remain: Marine Le Pen won a third of the second round presidential vote this year despite vocally absolving France of blame for the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews in 1942 (for which there is clear evidence of complicity).

British ‘heroes’ standing

Photo: Mark Kent (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

Students in Bristol have launched a fierce campaign to tear down an imposing statue of Edward Colston, a local merchant who made a fortune from the slave trade. (The council has already decided that Colston Hall, a music venue in the city, will be renamed by 2020.)The UK is facing similar issues with its public spaces. Recent proposals to tear down Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square due to his clearly white supremacist and support for slavery views have been gaining momentum.

Opponents claim such measures would ‘airbrush’ Britain’s history and irrevocably change cityscapes – indeed London’s Parliament Square would be virtually deserted if current political standards were strictly applied to those honoured within it. But for a young black Briton to have to walk past a statue glorifying a person who it is known deemed them an inferior species is a stomach-churning thought. So where do we draw the line?

These cases all seem to imply that although pulling down statues or renaming public spaces can help with the national reconciliation process after dark periods of national history, it cannot alone heal the psychological wounds. France, Germany, Spain and the UK continue to grapple with their histories, despite efforts to cleanse their presence in public spaces. 

Finding alternatives to statue removal

Statue removal is a complex and inherently political issue which demands national consensus. This was shown in the farcical case of the small town of Holešov in the Czech Republic, whose statue to the first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk has reportedly been pulled down and re-erected five times over the decades by various regimes. Decisions over which figures should and should not occupy our public spaces must be embarked upon carefully, and if we want to avoid the total emptying of cities a line clearly has to be drawn.

On the one hand, continuing to maintain statues or political artefacts honouring men (and it is almost always men) who committed atrocities is clearly wrong – especially when the monuments themselves were built to bolster a dictator’s cult of personality. If a statue’s presence itself is a political tool supporting a malevolent ideology, by all means tear it down from its pedestal – although this cannot alone solve national reconciliation. But if a statue offends today’s ethics simply by representing someone who was largely a product their time, other solutions can be found.

Perhaps a more successful, although still not uncontroversial, approach has been pursued in Hungary. All Communist statues were removed from their pedestals following 1989, and displayed in Memento Park, an open-air museum in Budapest created in 1993. Lithuania followed suit with Grutas Park in 2001.

Figures like Admiral Nelson or Edward Colston may be allowed to stay standing if accompanied with detailed information to contextualise their lives. A statue of a man like Colston perhaps becomes slightly more bearable if accompanied by a plaque explaining his role in the slave trade and contextualising the views he had.

After all, the last thing any nation wants to do is airbrush their public spaces to such an extent that the actions and figures of previous generations, good or bad, are left solely to dusty unopened history books. To learn from history, we cannot erase it.



Cover Photo Credit: William Chevillon (Flickr) ; Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • Lizzy Peet is originally from London. She studied history at the University of Edinburgh and Georgetown University in Washington DC. She is currently a researcher for The Economist magazine.

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