Matt Qvortrup: Lost in Trump's Tuesday press conference is a real and honest conversation on the role of historical monuments
If we tear down statutes and monuments, we gloss over history and fail to confront our historical demons, he writes
Editor’s Note: Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University. His book, “Angela Merkel,” was published by Duckworth Overlook in 2016. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
“Repulsive” was the word used by House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan.
This was from a man who has gone out of his way to defend, support and condone the increasingly, well “repulsive,” statements by the 45th President of the United States.
It is trite to say President Trump is in hot water concerning his most recent statements about the violence that has erupted in Charlottesville.
But amidst all the justified condemnation of Trump’s most recent deplorable comments, we may overlook that he had a partial point regarding an issue that is supposedly central to what is happening in Charlottesville: the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Below is a paragraph from Trump’s farcical Tuesday night press conference. In amongst all the anger and bile, Trump noted the following, which deserves to be quoted at length:
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It is here where the President touches upon a more fundamental issue. Certainly, there are some people who feel that in tearing down monuments to the past, we are throwing history out with the proverbial bath water.
They might be wrong. But they have a point. How else are we to remember the darker elements of our past? Should we airbrush from history all reminders of those who fought for – as we see it now – the wrong causes?
What should we do about the statutes of men – and they were mostly men – who caused suffering and who espoused racist views that are completely unacceptable today?
But if we tear down statutes and monuments, we not only gloss over history. We also fail to confront our historical demons.
The Germans, as is their wont, have a specific word for just this: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It can loosely be translated as the “attempts to overcome the [negatives of the] past”.
Rather than try to erase the past, the Germans have used monuments such as the Reichstag and buildings erected by the East German Communists as opportunities for discussing and thereby coming to terms with the past.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is not relegated to the margins of German life. It is everywhere: in the school curriculum, in museums and in political statements.
Two years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear how unambiguous German thinking on the issue was when she said – while standing next to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu – that Germans were “very clear in our minds” that the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust.
In the capital city of Berlin there are many memorials for Holocaust survivors and victims of violence by the East German state. It was not a coincidence that one of the first places Merkel visited in her campaign for re-election was Hohenschönhausen, the notorious prison for political dissidents in the communist German Democratic Republic.
That history is always part of political life means that the Germans are comfortable with other memorials. The Siegessäule, the large monument erected by Otto von Bismarck to celebrate victory over Denmark in the war of 1864, is still in the centre of Tiergarten in Berlin. Not because Germans of today celebrate that war, but because they acknowledge that it is a part of their national history.
America could learn from this.
In Italy, by contrast, no such efforts were made to reconcile Italians with their fascist past. That could explain why you see Il Duce memorabilia at pretty much every flea-market in the country.
A similar failure to come to terms with the past, perhaps, explains, why Confederate flags are on sale at most car-boot sales in the Deep South.
Trump, despite his catastrophic lack of sensitivity, might have had a point if he had insisted on condemning all sides in general historical terms.
But on this occasion his statement made it sound as if he were defending the indefensible. On this occasion the neo-Nazis were out in force and they had hijacked a legitimate protest.
And in doing so he unfortunately made it less likely that we can have a debate about how we remember (not so) great men, and how we might learn from the darkest moments in our history.