Is it right to destroy monuments over our dark past?

May 13, 2018 - 06:20

OPINION: Politicians, managers and researchers must be able to use their voices when cultural heritage contributes to discrimination, hatred and violence.

Neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists gathered to prevent the statue of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee from being removed from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. The protests ended after a woman was killed and 19 people were injured when a right-wing extremist drove his car into a crowd. (Photo: Joshua Roberts / Reuters / NTB scanpix)

With the right-wing, populist-nationalist wave rolling over Europe and the United States, monuments from a dark part of our history are being pulled out of oblivion and despair. They are used ideologically and politically to draw attention to these groups in society and put researchers, managers and politicians on trial.

It's hard to understand and to reflect upon the tragic and violent events in Charlottesville, where right-wing extremist demonstrators used violence to show their dissatisfaction with city authorities’ desires to remove the equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee. The burning hatred and Nazi greetings that resulted are now part of the city’s history.

At the centre of these riots stands a monument of a shadowy national past. The question that arises is whether the monument has a place in our time – should it be retained or removed? US President Donald Trump argued that it may be wrong to remove the statue because it is undemocratic and denies the fact of history. Thus, he justifies “the white riot” and at the same time undermines the political majority’s decision in Charlottesville to remove the statue.

Historical monuments removed in Norway

In Norway, historical monuments representing a shadowy use of the past, such as Nazi monuments raised in honour of Norse heroes, have been destroyed to conceal or wipe out this difficult past. Several of the monuments raised during the war by the Nasjonal Samling (NS), a Norwegian far-right party active from 1933 to 1945, such as the Snorre Monument erected in 1941 in the Royal Garden in Oslo and the NS monument erected at Stiklestad in 1944, were destroyed when the war ended.

There is currently no survey of this kind of cultural heritage in Norway, as has been done in other countries, including Denmark and Sweden. In my opinion, this will be an important future task because facing cultural aspects that are difficult, divide and or are shameful creates reflective societies.

The riots in the United States against the removal of historical monuments show that there is a need for knowledge of what to do with these monuments for the benefit of society today. 

The discussion within cultural heritage management has often been about how to preserve and maintain these landmarks and to what extent a list of them should be made. There has nevertheless been doubt about the validity of such work. One reason is that these sculptures represent an outdated nationalism which causes uncertainty about their value in today's society.

Sometimes it's legitimate to destroy

Those who are doing research on historical monuments – such as statues, busts and other installations – and on “dark heritage” are keen to understand the society that this heritage was part of when it was created. At the same time, there exists an increasingly rich library of research literature on how this divisive and painful heritage should be managed and used as a resource in today's society.

Cultural heritage management is as much about what should not be preserved as it is about what should be, and is being, preserved. Destruction, whether by conscious demolition or natural decline, is a legitimate part of the practice of cultural heritage management.

It is therefore not so odd that monuments that symbolize the racist past of the United State have been removed or are being removed throughout the American continent. Iconoclasm, as these actions express, is a political and, in some regimes, religious tool for demonstrating change and legitimising power.

We've seen it before. The Taliban's destruction of Buddha statues in Afghanistan, demolition of Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq after the US invasion, and destruction of Lenin and Stalin statues after the fall of the communist regime. However, tearing down a Buddha statue to demonstrate religious intolerance and demolition of a dictatorial statue to demonstrate democracy have very different contexts and legitimacy.

Destruction can heal or divide

Destruction and removal of monuments may be useful in times where a difficult past becomes too painful to relate to, such as statues erected by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. President Trump said that the planned removal of the Lee statue meant the removal of history. He also endorsed those who want to preserve the Lee statue because for him the decision to remove the statue is a means of erasing a common (which is divisive racial) heritage of Americans.

It is important to point out that history and memory are not the same. We do not need Hitler statues to remind us of the history of the Second World War. Removing a memorial does not remove history, but the act changes how it will be remembered.

In the case of the United States, it is about correcting injustice by removing symbolic monuments that honour America’s slave history and thus shelters discrimination and oppression inflicted upon non-whites. Removal and destruction of monuments will be important in the United States for the society to be healed of their painful past, which must occur for the country to move on.

Silence or neglect can also be ways to overcome a difficult past. For example, it may take place by changing names, such as in Charlottesville, where the park with the statue of General Lee was changed from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. Changing the name of the park with a new symbol is a way to communicate that the old meaning is no longer uniting the inhabitants of Charlottesville and that it belongs to an outdated value base.

Recent events in the United States do not indicate a society that has been working on its racist past or that society has moved on and reconciled its dark history. Instead, the unresolved settlement with the past is like an open wound bleeding across the American continent.

Thus, removing or destroying these monuments provokes and creates riots rather than healing and creating societal bonds. Some, like the American history professor John Fabian Witt at Yale, believe that the events in Charlottesville and President Trump’s statements about them will lead to the eradication of many more historical monuments. The majority of the nation’s citizens will demand it to show where they stand in the American culture battle.

When is it appropriate to save a monument?

Instead of destroying or silencing a monument associated with a painful past, these landmarks could also be used as tools for critical public debate about uses of the past today. Using re-contextualization and provocation as tools can be a difficult balance to strike, however.

What should be done depends on an assessment of the extent to which dialogue and constructive debate are reached or if the attention only reinforces the conflict. Through dialogue and debate, this divisive history could be used in the long term as a means of reconciliation and tolerance.

But that is not what has happened in the United States. The rhetoric of justice and the desire to belong to the past has become harder to defeat, and the limits of what can be said in the public conversation have been pushed towards the extreme political right. The debate has become harsh, irreconcilable, confrontational and violent.

The question about the removal or preservation of the Lee statue has led to the influence of intolerance and racism in American culture being drawn into the light. It has created a debate around wither politicians should take this seriously and use their voices in the public conversation to make a stand. However, as researchers we can reveal and analyse what is happening – the ideological and political uses of the monuments, the stories that are constructed and the definition of heritage and for whom it is important.

But politicians, managers and researchers must also be able to promote an ethical awareness and use their voices when heritage contributes to discrimination, hatred and violence.

To read more about this topic, see Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen: “National Memorial Sites as Heritage Values: Valuating Sites Paying Tribute to Heroic Vikings”. In: Heritage, Democracy and the Public: Nordic Approaches, Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen and Grete Swensen (eds.), pp. 13-26. Routledge, 2016.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no.

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