Removing statues to ‘bad’ people means we are pretending certain things didn’t happen, writes Jane Bradley.
When I first visited Berlin 20 years ago or so, I remember being surprised that the location of the famous Wall was not easy to find.
I think I had expected there to be some sort of marker where it once stood – perhaps a line running along the ground, delineating its path. Of course, thinking about it logically, of course there wasn’t. Doing so would create almost as much of a divide as the wall itself – sectioning off east from west on a permanent basis.
It is no surprise that the citizens of Berlin want to forget the wall – bar a couple of sections which remain standing as a tourist attraction. However, they know that you can’t separate Berlin from its wall. There are museums dedicated to it and there is a memorial to people who died while trying to cross from east to west. People do not want to forget – in fact, they want everyone to remember, to make sure that it does not happen again.
Yet in other places, communities appear increasingly desperate to erase history.
Last week, SNP MP Mhairi Black was branded a “snowflake” by critics after complaining that a 200-year-old satirical sketch at Westminster which depicts Wellington and Robert Peel “murdering the constitution” was inappropriate in a place where “there are victims of sexual assault and harassment working”. She believed that the satirical sketch, which many argue is not in any way sexual, but just simply violent, should be removed – with others joining in the bun fight to agree that it was “inappropriate for today’s values”.
In Canada, the same thing is happening, with statues and memorials to colonists including Glasgow-born John A Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, being removed at a rate of knots due to his legacy of the residential school system, which saw more than 150,000 indigenous children forcibly removed from their homes and sent to state-funded boarding schools.
Last year, a court in Malawi halted work on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi after critics accused him of using racial slurs, while a few months later, a statue of the Indian independence leader was removed from the campus of the University of Ghana after protests from students and faculty who argued that he had considered Africans “inferior”.
On a recent trip to the Belarusian capital of Minsk, I noticed that statues of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin were everywhere you looked, despuite the fact that Belarus, in many ways, is trying to shrug off its Soviet past. Ukraine, on the other hand, recently removed all 1,320 statues of Lenin which stood in its cities, towns and villages under an anti-Soviet initiative, which also ordered the renaming of streets and cities which bore the names of former leaders.
There is little doubt that all of these people above behaved badly – some worse than others – yet by removing them we are simply pretending that certain things did not happen.
History is exactly what it claims to be – something that happened in the past. We cannot change that, for good or bad.
We also need to remember that what was once entirely acceptable may not be today – but that doesn’t make everybody in the past terrible people.
Last week, a man called George Mendonsa died aged 95. Otherwise an ordinary chap who was a sailor during the Second World War, he was the subject of an iconic picture taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1945. Part of a large group celebrating in Times Square, New York, on VJ Day – the day Japan surrendered to the US – he was shown kissing Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant. The picture has long been used as an icon of the end of the war in the US – a symbol of the jubilation of the day.
Yet the day after he died, a statue created in Florida from the image was defaced with graffiti – #MeToo was sprayed onto the leg of the woman.
While they have both admitted that they were strangers and not in a romantic relationship – and that Mendonsa “grabbed” her and spontaneously kissed her – the sailor described the incident as something that happened in “the moment” at the end of the conflict. Meanwhile, Ms Friedman herself said it was an event of “thank god the war is over”.
The person who wrote #MeToo on the statue has presumably not lived through a world war. They cannot imagine the jubilation of a day when conflict is finally over after six long years. Life was different then and it will be different again in 50 years’ time, when what seem to be obvious values and ethics today will probably be regarded quite differently.
History, too, can be interpreted in different ways, as in the case of Gandhi, who in India is hailed as a hero and in Africa is seen by some as racist.
The existence of memorials to experiences of the past are a learning opportunity. Historians constantly look to what has happened before to work out how we can prevent things from reoccurring.
As the well-known Remembrance Day poem by Laurence Binyon goes, “We will remember them”. But by erasing history and destroying historical monuments to people and events, it could make it all too easy to forget.