A time of contested politics is also a time of contested history. Across Europe, from the UK to Ukraine, monument wars are in full swing.
“Our country has a lot of problems, but people have decided that the most important thing is a war against statues,” a friend said to me in Odessa the other day, a gleam of humor in her eye. She was pointing to a statue of Catherine the Great, who founded the city on the Black Sea in 1794. Ukrainian nationalists want to see the statue taken down, unhappy with the reminder that their city was created by a Russian empress. Previously, Ukrainian Cossacks had fiercely objected to the monument.
Students in Oxford do not take such a nuanced view. Last week, about 150 of them marched through the city to demand the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the facade of Oriel College. Rhodes was a nineteenth-century British politician and mining magnate who enforced colonialism and white rule in South Africa. He would be shamed or prosecuted if he pursued those policies today. But he also endowed the famous Rhodes scholarships that have enabled thousands of non-British students to come to Oxford.
This is not an easy topic. What to do with all the memorials and street names associated with historical figures whose deeds were once lauded but are now despised? To take one example, in the last one hundred years the central street of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv (also known variously as Lwów, Lemberg, or Lvov), now called Freedom Avenue, has been named after Archduke Karl Ludwig, the Cossack Hetman, May 1, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Lenin. What should be kept and what erased?
There are two extreme positions. One is that everything must be kept, regardless of whose name it bears. That is surely untenable. No one wants to see a street called Adolf-Hitler-Straße. Cities in the former Soviet Union should not have to keep statues of Lenin and Stalin in their central squares.
The other position is to take down all reminders of the past that do not fit with current-day orthodoxies. That approach too is problematic. In Eastern Europe, it has made history a kaleidoscope of vanishing images, in which the past is instantly forgotten and its lessons unheeded. The Indian city of Kolkata did something similar by pulling down its British imperial monuments—only to face calls for their reinstatement.
In Ukraine, new decommunization legislation has ordered the removal of all the country’s Soviet-era monuments. In Georgia, similar laws led to bizarre debates about whether red stars engraved in the facades of buildings should be erased.
Taken too far, this approach risks ending up with the same kind of organized forgetting espoused by many of the very same tyrants whose monuments the protesters want to see dismantled. “The entire history of the brief ‘millennial Reich’ can be re-read as a war against memory,” warned Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.
Context is everything. Public history should be polyphonic. Central London sets a good example, having statues to the two men who led opposing sides in the English Civil War in the 1640s, King Charles I (in Charing Cross) and the antiroyalist Oliver Cromwell (outside the House of Commons).
U.S. cities have come up with creative solutions to deal with this issue. The central plaza of Santa Fe in New Mexico has a memorial put up in 1868 to U.S. soldiers, whom the inscription calls “heroes who have fallen in the glorious battles with savage Indians.” The word “savage” was chipped away by a protester forty years ago, and there is now a sign explaining that the monument was a work of its time and telling its history.
The director of the Atlanta History Center has suggested adding panels to statues of Confederate leaders with scannable codes that will give more information on their controversial biographies. In that spirit, the protesters in Oxford should be asking to write a plaque, to be placed near the Rhodes statue, that gives a critical commentary of the man.
Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian intellectual who is the greatest modern commentator on the politics of memory, has a warning about the misuses of memorialization. The past can be either sanctified and held in such reverence that it provides no meaning for the present or trivialized—the process by which every tin-pot dictator or populist politician is labeled a Hitler. “A sanctified past brings nothing to mind but itself; a trivialized past reminds us of anything and everything,” Todorov wrote.
A good policy on monuments needs to navigate between those two extremes. Despite being made of bronze or stone, a monument is never static. It should be a good public history lesson—or, to be precise, many history lessons at once.