The Power of Monuments

President Trump regrets that equestrian statues in the South are being torn down. He can barely stop the opponents.

Whoever wants to become something invents an appropriate past for it. For this reason, monuments and memorials play such a large role again and again. Putting them up is a political exercise. Tearing them down is one, too.

One hundred years ago, Robert E. Lee Park was established in Charlottesville. In 1924, the equestrian statue of the southern general, Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), was added. Last year, the city council of Charlottesville – two white men, two white women and one black man – unanimously decided to rename the park “Emancipation Park” and remove the statue.

Trump Home Alone?

Right-wing extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan took that as a reason to hold violent demonstrations in Charlottesville. Numerous people were injured, one person was killed.

There were counterdemonstrations, and a U.S. President Trump who defended the right-wing extremists. Even the loyal-to-the-president station Fox News declared it could find no well-known Republican politician who supported the president’s position. Was Trump home alone?

The mayor of Baltimore ordered monuments in memory of Southern heroes torn down over night. After Charlottesville, Southern monuments everywhere in the U.S. are being called into question. Trump rushed to help them this time, too, and declared this about tearing down southern monuments: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” However, even putting them up was intended to tear the country apart. When the Lee statue was being erected in Charlottesville, voting rights for blacks in the state of Virginia were being curtailed.

There has been an Axel Springer Street in Berlin since 1996. When an idea by the taz* to create a Rudi Dutschke Street nearby became reality in 2008 after years of controversy, the street sign was unveiled in front of the Axel Springer high rise.** Springer and Dutschke were opposites in Berlin during the second half of the 60s. Renaming part of Koch Street was a demonstration of political power. Today it is part of the beauty of Berlin that Axel Springer Street and Rudi Dutschke Street meet so peacefully.

The Sight of Evil Is Not Intolerable

There was amnesty even for the defeated Southerners in the U.S. and in some Southern states, and the Jan. 19 birthday of Gen. Lee is celebrated to this day. There is also a nuclear submarine bearing his name. Without the abolition of slavery, but also without the inclusion of the former slave holders, likewise without the women’s right to vote first established in 1920, the United States would not be united states.

Perhaps it would be better to place a monument to a black slave from Charlottesville at a different site. Or a statue of John Henry James, who was lynched in 1898. There is a petition for the latter before the city council of Charlottesville.

In Germany, probably no day passes in which right-wing extremist orators do not rail against the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. They claim that no other nation places a monument to its disgrace in its capital city, furthermore, a “fabricated disgrace.” But building this memorial had exactly this purpose: We and the visitors of the city should never forget what was done here and what was once planned from here.

Whatever one may say about the site – it has not harmed Germany. One can be skeptical whether or not we would have had it without the presence of a still raving right-wing extremism. Memorials and monuments accomplish little.

A Power Game

The sight of evil is not intolerable. It could also be a reminder that being at its mercy is not a certainty. To leave a piece of the wall was not only smart for tourist reasons. For a long time, the Olympic stadium was a reminder of the aesthetic and type of exercise of power from which we could only free ourselves with great effort.

Letting them stand as witness to an overridden past is something quite different from making the past a role model in defiance of a present that has escaped it. Take for example, training federal German soldiers in barracks named for Wehrmacht heroes. That would show that not everything had been bad, although that is not the question at all. It is a matter of whether a Nazi soldier is a valid role model for German federal soldiers. They rendered outstanding service neither to their fatherland nor to democracy or constitutionality. They are no role models.

Whoever erects a monument would like us to look up to it. Whoever tears it down, refuses to look up at it, and more so wants to demonstrate his displeasure. Either way – it is a power game. Everywhere in the world.

*Translator’s note: Die Tageszeitung, a Berlin-based German newspaper.

**Editor’s note: Axel Springer was a German journalist and founder of the Axel Springer SE publishing company. Rudi Dutschke was a prominent spokesman of the 1960s German student movement.

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