I’ve had mixed feelings about recent calls to take down Confederate statues located throughout the United States. While I certainly don’t admire the Confederacy, it is precisely because of the Confederacy’s legacy of racial injustices over the century and a half since its defeat — a legacy that includes erecting most of these monuments either to validate Jim Crow laws at the turn of the 20th century or to flout the civil rights movement — that I question the wisdom of simply removing these memorials. My discomfort was echoed by a VC Rogers cartoon that appeared originally in the Indy Weekly Durham in mid-August, 2017. The cartoon depicts young people re- moving a Confederate monument. After toppling the statue of a rebel soldier, they start digging up its pedestal only to discover it had grown thick, deep roots, like a tree. The cartoon’s caption reads, “The Hard Part.” In addition to being skeptical of the idea that taking down these statues will remove the problems they represent, I also fear that removing the statues might inspire other people to demand the removal of monuments they object to. Imagine, say, white supremacists insisting that statues of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. be taken down.
Established to remind the public of a notable person or event of the past, monuments not only become sites of forgetting, as has often been noted. They can also become touchstones for new, contested understandings of the past, which call for new approaches to remembrance. If leaving Confederate monuments in place is untenable, what else is possible? Consider European practices regarding monuments that address the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Germany provides an unrivaled array of responses to some of the most disturbing episodes of 20th-century history. Counter-monuments critique Nazi-era memorials, while reminders of the Holocaust have been placed in empty spaces between buildings, on street signs, and in sidewalks, thereby transforming quotidian environments into daily reminders of genocide. These projects, the work of politically engaged artists collaborating with governments and communities, recall abject moments in Germany’s history and interrogate conventionalized memorial practices generally.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of communist-era monuments were removed from public places and transported to a site in Moscow, unofficially known as the Fallen Monuments Park. It boasts hundreds of sculptures, now bereft of pedestals or lying sideways on the ground. Part of a larger outdoor art museum, these monuments no longer represent the governing regime but have been historicized and re-contextualized as Soviet-era artworks. The park, which some have described as a monument “graveyard,” can be a site to recall the past with contempt, fondness, or perhaps ambivalence.
For every monument that has been removed, repositioned, or repurposed, there is at least one other relic that is — at least for some — a reminder of an unsettling past. Sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga, allegorical figures representing the “triumph” of Christianity over Judaism, adorn many gothic cathedrals (a pair stand at the entrance to Paris’s Notre Dame). A statue of Bogdan Chmelnitski astride a rampant horse is prominently positioned on a main thoroughfare in Kiev, honoring a man recalled as an intrepid freedom fighter by Ukrainians but regarded as a ruthless murderer by Jews and Poles. What sort of interventions with these monuments might galvanize the non-Jewish public’s awareness of the long history of European antisemitism and help Jews understand, in its fullest complexity, the position of Jews and Judaism in Christian Europeans’ consciousness and conduct? Or, closer to home: New York City is debating the removal of memorials to Christopher Columbus, and what response might we have to a statue of Moses with horns in a courthouse in Washington D.C.?
Even the most thoughtful strategies for addressing controversial memorials do not “solve” the problem of the hurtful chapters of history and the disturbing, protracted legacy that these monuments represent to some but not to others. Yet such efforts can invite people to confront the problem, and to come to the difficult realization that the past can’t be erased. There is not one right approach to the challenges posed by monuments that recall an abhorrent episode of history. As these are localized phenomena, engaging local publics in addressing the challenge is key. Doing so obligates members of communities to embrace their responsibility to grapple with a past both shared and disputed — and, moreover, to build their future together as neighbors.
Jeffrey Shandler is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent book is Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age: Survivors’ Stories and New Media Practices, Stanford University Press, 2017.