The Controversy Over Statues and How We Commemorate the Past

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By James Fallows

Twelve Statues That Made History
By Alex von Tunzelmann

This book starts well and ends well, with bumpy patches in between. “You may disagree with me on some things,” Alex von Tunzelmann writes on the final page of “Fallen Idols.” As a reader, I did. “That’s fine,” she allows, and adds more hopefully: “You may have been intrigued by some historical stories you hadn’t previously known about.” Indeed, I was. “That’s wonderful,” she concludes, in the breezy tone that characterizes the book overall. “There’s a whole wide world of the past out there.”

Her goal is to link recent global movements for racial justice and historical reckoning with the longer-term question of how people understand, distort, correct and build on the “whole wide world of the past.” Von Tunzelmann, a British historian, explores this larger theme through case studies of heroic “Great Man” statues that societies have erected — and eventually torn down. “Statues are intended, literally, to set the past in stone,” she writes on the book’s first page. “As we’ll see, that doesn’t always work.”

The heart of the book is von Tunzelmann’s 12 chapter-long stories of figures famous enough to have become the subjects of commemorative statues, and then controversial enough to have some or all of these monuments removed. The list includes a few names well known to American readers. For instance, Robert E. Lee, who after leading the Confederate Army to defeat was honored during the late 19th and early 20th centuries with statues across the South and elsewhere. And George Washington, whose statue in Portland, Ore., was pulled down in June 2020, by protesters who believed that his slave-owning history made him “a symbol of the injustices they felt were rooted deep in the history of the United States itself.”

Some other subjects, once celebrated, now have much narrower fame. One is William, Duke of Cumberland, who became an English hero in the 1700s for killing thousands of people in his brutal suppression of a Jacobite rebellion in Scotland — and by 2005, for that same slaughter, was chosen by historians as the “worst Briton” of the 18th century. Or George V, who as king-emperor sovereign of the pre-independence Raj was honored in the 1930s with a large marble statue in New Delhi, which is “now falling to bits in scrubland in the north of the city, rarely visited except by stray dogs.”

In between are the likes of Stalin and Lenin — the latter commemorated not simply in statues but with the “living sculpture” of his own embalmed body in Red Square. Also King Leopold II of Belgium, who oversaw the killing of millions in the Congo (and was the subject of Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”). And the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, who temporarily gave his name to the colony and then nation of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was memorialized with prominent statues at two universities, in Cape Town and Oxford. His South African statue was taken down in 2015, after a sustained “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. The one at Oriel College, Oxford, remains.

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    As von Tunzelmann suggests, many of these stories are fascinating. Two examples: Rafael Trujillo, the mid-20th-century dictator of the Dominican Republic, who studded the country with enormous phallic monuments that were meant to be renderings of his own potency. And what von Tunzelmann calls “the most enchanting of all statue graveyards,” an underwater collection known as the “Alley of the Leaders,” in the Black Sea off Crimea. It started with a bust of Lenin and now contains “around 50 old Communist monuments down there, visited only by divers and sea creatures.”

    An unnerving aspect of these stories, for me, is that the ones I liked best concerned people and places I knew least about, as with the Duke of Cumberland, or Edward Colston. (Colston was the Bristol merchant whose statue was pitched into the harbor last year because of his role in the 17th-century slave trade.) Conversely, the closer von Tunzelmann comes to familiar or contested ground, the more I noticed oversimplification and glibness.

    For instance, her chapter on Saddam Hussein is built around the staged-for-television toppling of his statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad, a few days into the U.S. invasion in 2003. Von Tunzelmann contends that this registered in the United States as a decisive moment: “The media decided that pulling down Saddam’s statue represented something else. For them, it would be the end of the war.” You can make that case about George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier-landing stunt a few weeks later. For the statue, it’s a stretch.

    A deeper, recurring issue is her treatment of the long history of race relations in the United States. It’s a main theme of her book, and not one on which she displays great nuance. One example among many: “In the 1960s and ’70s, the founding fathers went out of fashion because most of them were slave owners: a poor fit with those decades’ ideas about liberation. They would be back.” And here is a passage illustrating her British-debating-society rhetorical style: “One of the greatest lies told about Cecil Rhodes … is that he was a Man of His Time. … The implication is that the times themselves were racist and imperialist, and Rhodes could not have thought differently. Times, of course, do not have opinions, so this is nonsense.”

    There is another rhetorical point worth noting, which despite disagreements made me warm toward this work. In addition to her books, von Tunzelmann is a screenwriter. Writing meant to be heard — in speeches, broadcasts, film narration, dialogue — is different from what is meant to be read on a page. It is typically allusive rather than explicit. It suggests rather than belabors its points, and calls on imagination and the other senses to fill in the blanks. I’ve done both kinds of writing, for eye and ear, and am more and more aware of the difference. When it comes to thorny issues, a sentence that can seem simplistic to the eye can be appropriately suggestive through the ear. Imagine the following passage by von Tunzelmann, which links Edward Colston, of Bristol, and George Floyd, of Minneapolis, if you heard it as a voice-over by, say, Peter Coyote in some future 12-part documentary series on fallen-idol statues:

    “The stories of this 17th-century merchant in Bristol and the 21st-century security guard almost 4,000 miles away in Minneapolis were connected. Together, they tell a story of empire, slavery and how history is made.”

    Von Tunzelmann ends the book with a strong argument that “statuary itself is the problem,” because it is ”didactic, haughty and uninvolving.” One exception she recommends is the informal, accessible “Allies” statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, sitting together on a park bench in New Bond Street in London. I hope her next trip will be to Rapid City, S.D., near Mount Rushmore, where downtown street corners feature life-size bronze statues of American presidents, in similar casual, conversational poses.

    “There are far more effective ways” than statues to memorialize the things a society wants to celebrate, she argues: “through festivals, museums, exhibitions, books” and the like. “These forms of commemoration engage people, allow space for them to participate and bring history to life.” If a book’s purpose is to tell you stories and leave you with an idea, this idea of better styles of commemoration will stay with me.

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