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Where should controversial monuments go?

Felix Schlagwein
June 18, 2020

While colonial-era statues are being torn down in the UK and Belgium, some Eastern European countries have already banished communist-era monuments to isolated parks. Are there better ways to deal with canceled "heroes"?

Ungarn  Budapest | Bela Kun Memorial im Memento Park
Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/P. Svarc

The fall of a monument is a historical act. There is something irreversible about it. It stands for a victory against the old order, the dawn of a new era. It's no wonder, then, that in the wake of the current anti-racism protests, slave owners and colonial masters of the past are being swept off their pedestals. Their glorified legacy, which has survived to this day in the form of racism, is finally being reevaluated.

This hit slave trader Edward Colston, whose statue was toppled by activists in Bristol, England, who sent it into the harbor basin. In Boston, demonstrators beheaded the sculpture of the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, whose voyages to the Americas paved the way to the colonization, exploitation and extermination of Native American peoples. The Belgian King Leopold II, who established a brutal colonial regime in the Congo, will probably disappear from public view for good. His statues, like many others, have now been removed by authorities as a precaution.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought an old debate back into the public spotlight. For years, there has been controversy, especially in Europe and the United States, about how to deal with the former "heroes." Many of them had a deeply racist worldview; they oppressed, enslaved and killed people. But does that mean that their depictions should all be toppled and sent into the water like Edward Colston's?

"As a historian, I have an interest in keeping monuments as historical sources," Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of global history with a focus on Africa at the University of Hamburg, told DW. However, one must clearly "de-heroize" them and classify them historically.

How Eastern Europe deals with its 'heroes' of the past

Statue parks, such as those created by some Eastern European countries after the end of communism, could provide a resting place for disgraced monuments. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Memento Park in Budapest. Located outside the city center, it houses several dozen statues, busts and other works of art that once shaped the Hungarian capital. Similar examples can be found in Moscow, Sofia and Grutas in Lithuania.

"Many people were traumatized by this period and could no longer stand the flood of communist monuments in the cityscape," art historian Arnold Bartetzky from the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig told DW.

Many monuments were therefore destroyed following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Establishing parks to preserve monuments, such as the one in Budapest, was therefore an important measure: "At least some of the statues did not end up in the trash, but in a protected environment," says Bartetzky. And since the park is on the outskirts of the city, those who do not want to be confronted with their own past can easily avoid it. In fact, the Memento Park is primarily a tourist attraction.

Lenin statue at the entrance to Budapest's Memento Park
Banished to the outskirts of town: The Lenin statue at the entrance to Budapest's Memento Park Image: DW/F. Schlagwein

Historians call for a debate on public spaces

For historians like Jürgen Zimmerer and Arnold Bartetzky, such statue parks are, however, only the "second best solution." They would prefer to see the monuments left in their original location, all while determining ways to draw attention to them and explain their historical context.

Zimmerer suggests, for example, that statues could be turned upside down, laid down or half-dug into the ground. "This would challenge our viewing habits," he says. "And it would force us to take a critical look at the monument and our history."

Arnold Bartetzky also demands a public confrontation with our history: "Liberal societies should be able to endure that not everything that is in public spaces corresponds to our current world view. That is exactly what distinguishes us from dictatorships and autocratic regimes," says the art historian.

a statue in Budapest
In some Eastern European countries, separate parks were created to deal with unpopular monuments Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/P. Williams

How far back in history should we look?

It would, however, be an overwhelming task for historians to label and contextualize everything that does not conform to present-day norms. After all, democracy and human rights are relatively recent achievements. So how far back in history should we be looking? "Basically, we have to determine which persons and actions we still regard as contributing to forming our society's identity today," says Jürgen Zimmerer. "Here, a critical reassessment is essential."

Bartetzky is also against blindly attacking everything that no longer represents today's values and destroying controversial monuments: "If we continue like this, we will lose a large part of our cultural heritage."