Toppled Statues: US and Germany, side by side (why true history matters)

I came across a post the other day that said, “Over 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz and it still stands 72 years later. Why? Because Jews who survived wanted it preserved, as it is a reminder to never let the evil that was Nazism ever happen again. Never tear down memorials!” This seems to be a common refrain and comparison in the debate on Confederate statues that have taken up residence in the US. Those who wish to keep these monuments in place state that tearing down these statues is a revisionist attempt to erase an entire period of our history. Now, I have a few issues with this argument, and I think it’s important to dissect these sentiments if we are ever going to get to the heart of the issue. For starters: there is a distinct line between keeping historical sites that intend to educate people about our history, and keeping a memorial statue that glorifies a group that shouldn’t be glorified.

Comparisons to Germany

I’m going to start here with comparisons to Germany because- well, it’s pretty quick. What the author of the quote above fails to mention is that Germany did not maintain Nazi memorials after the war. Granted, there are many sites and museums dedicated to the Holocaust and the atrocities that took place on their lands, and Auschwitz does still stand as a vocal reminder of what humans are capable of. But the intent of these sites is the key difference: they disavow Nazism and are brutally honest about the horrendous things this regime did. A Confederate statue in a community park does not bear witness to the pain and atrocities of slavery or the systems that they created to marginalize an entire group of people for generations to come.

Whenever a regime is toppled, they generally don’t get to decide if the memorials they erected get to stand- often they don’t. This is a common refrain throughout history. In Germany libraries were immediately stripped of all Nazi books, newspapers that touted Nazi propaganda were shuttered. Statues and monuments were systematically destroyed by the government. You will not find a statue of Hitler existing in Germany today because any form of Nazi memorial that venerated or glorified the war or Nazi ideals was banned and criminalized. Some structures (admittedly, not all) were razed to the ground; and in a few instances, museums were erected in their place. In 1949 the display of the swastika was criminalized and the symbol was scraped, and occasionally blown off of buildings with explosives.

The German people themselves were not immune to the dismantling of the Nazi party and the way it’s ideals were ripped out at the roots. Participants in Nazi activities were prosecuted, and executed in some instances. Many of those who were executed were buried in mass unmarked graves to ensure that their final resting places would not become Nazi shrines. It was crucial to Germany as a whole that the ideals of the Nazi party were disavowed to ensure that the horrors of the holocaust would not happen again. This idea even went a step farther and major Nazi strongholds that held the risk of being used as glorified monuments were intentionally tainted with anti-war activities. For example, Nuremberg was considered to be at the heart of Nazism, it was the location where anti-Jewish laws were enacted and the major rallies took place. The famous photos of Hitler talking to large swaths of Nazi soldiers were taken here- it was an iconic location deeply tied to the Nazi movement. To ensure that this location didn’t become a beacon for any simmering Nazi ideals, it was specifically chosen by the Allies to hold the post-war trials of the Nazi leaders.

Now, this didn’t mean that the ideas planted by the Nazi party didn’t survive into future generations. It took decades for the German population to fully recognize their role in the war and come to terms with the atrocities inflicted upon others. It was a long process before this portion of their history was ever even taught in school. But eventually, that happened. And if you look at Germany today, you will see a nonmilitary state that has attempted to atone for their crimes and be a warning to others. Now, this piece right here is going to come into play later. But first, I think it’s important for us to dive into the actual history of the confederate monuments in order to make a full circle.

The History of Confederate Memorials

What most people don’t seem to fully realize is that most of the Confederate Statues existing in the United States today were not created until after the confederacy fell. That’s right, they didn’t even belong to the time period that many are ‘trying to protect.’ To be fair: there were a few ‘original’ monuments that were erected during, or immediately after, the war. However, those were almost exclusively memorials commemorating lost soldiers and were placed in the graveyards where they were buried.

Most of the statues existing today are of a different nature. They were erected in direct response to an uptick in civil rights activity, and they primarily focused on glorifying Confederate leaders and the role of southern participants. They were not built strictly within the confines of the 11 states that attempted to secede from the union; in fact, they can be easily located in 31 different states, as well as the District of Columbia. Now, the point that I really want to drive home is the timing that these statues were erected, because I find that to be particularly telling when we get to the issue of intent and context. If you look at the list of monuments and the dates they were established, you will see two large spikes along the timeline, and both of them have a very similar thread running through them.

The first spike in statues and memorials came about around the turn of the 20th century when two things were happening simultaneously. First, there was a political push to rebrand southern states as noble patriots, and not as “rebels,” which was the preferred moniker during the war. The rebranding was an attempt to recreate the narrative (a revisionist narrative, you may ponder); to reclassify southern men as innocents who were simply intent on protecting their culture and livelihood against the overwhelming military might of the north. This was actually a pretty successful push, which is evident in the fact that somehow confederate flags are considered patriotic, even though they actively fought to separate themselves from the red, white and blue.

The second thing that happened during this time period, which is by far the overriding event: there was a noticeable upswing in civil rights activity related to the Jim Crow Laws established after the war. This was a period marked by resistance, with activists such as Ida B. Wells, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Isaiah Montgomery, to name a few. An increase in violence and murder of the black community led to a responsive increase in race riots, to include the ‘red summer’ of 1919. I don’t find it coincidental that this increase in racial strife coincided with an uptick in confederate monuments put on display in public areas, such as city centers and parks. To me personally, this seems to be a pretty overt way of sending a message, of displaying a moral and social ideal.

The second spike in confederate monuments happened during the mid 1950s and 1960s. That’s right: at the height of the civil rights movement itself. This was the time of Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, Woolworth’s lunch counter, the freedom riders, MLK, Malcolm X, the march on Washington, Bloody Sunday; and the key legal battles of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act and more. The increase in Confederate monuments appears to be in direct response to the civil rights movement itself, and a not-so-subtle push towards the idea of white supremacy at a time when that group felt as though they were losing political ground. The creation of these statues was not made with southern pride at it’s heart, it was a direct and racist response to a society that was attempting to push forward.

Why it Matters

The context and intent of these monuments matters. The point of view and ideals that they portray are extremely important. In Germany you will find monuments that have been dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, not the perpetrators. In fact, the German government has been extremely careful to ensure that Nazi sites don’t “call to” the wrong people. There was major concern when the bunker Hitler committed suicide in was uncovered. The fear was that this site would be used as a shrine of sorts for those still following the Nazi ideology. There were attempts made to destroy the bunker, though it proved pretty sturdy. What remains of it was sealed, and an intentionally low-key informational board was placed nearby; although there was much debate on even giving it that much attention. The site is currently used as a parking lot. The German government and population made specific decision to ensure that those who inflicted pain on others would not be glorified in the eyes of future generations.

The fact that many of the Confederate monuments were raised years after the war, coinciding with key moments in the civil rights movement: that matters. In a country that has struggled with overt, insidious, and systemic racism for it’s entire existence, having these statues on our soil and displayed prominently in public areas: that matters. Taking down the monuments isn’t about revising history, it is about acknowledging the full depth and breadth of what happened here: just like Germany had to do. It is about proving what our true ideals and intentions are. Can you imagine the outcry if Germany had waited a few decades after the war and then raised Nazi statutes, claiming it was about honoring their history and showing German Pride? Can you imagine car races taking place where the Nazi flag with it’s notorious swastika were prominently displayed next to the country’s flag, and it was characterized as ‘pride?’ How exactly would the German Jewish population feel? Don’t you think their thoughts and feelings on the issue should be taken into account? How is this any different?

We tend to have a bad habit of ignoring the pieces of our own past that we do not want to accept. We ignore the stories of those we oppressed as a nation, we don’t educate or provide prominent monuments for the Native Americans that were displaced and killed, or the Japanese citizens who were placed in internment camps, or the countless souls who were brought here in chains by those in power. You cannot venerate the perpetrators of violence and still try to tell their victims that you still care about them and their role within our mutual society.

Once again, like Germany, there is a change of mentality that is required here. It took decades for some of the German population to disavow the ideals set fourth by the Nazi party. It took an entirely new generation coming of age to begin asking the difficult questions and coming to terms with their role in a part of history that they wish didn’t happen. Even after the statues and swastikas were removed, there was still a battle of ideals that had to take place. Just removing the Confederate monuments will not end racism. But what it does is prove that dedicated steps are being taken to reach that goal. It proves that we, as a society, want to do better. It proves that we recognize the harm inflicted over the course of our history.

Removing icons won’t fix the flaws in our society. But it will provide space for new stories that deserve to be told and other parts of our history that deserve time in the light. Being dishonest with ourselves about the intent and purpose of these monuments only compounds the harm that they can cause. It’s time for us to finally face our role within our own history and vow to do better.