Monuments are traditionally erected while a particular regime is in power
In the US, Confederate monuments were built after the Confederacy's fall
While the United States grapples with how to deal with roughly 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, other nations have taken more decisive action on the monuments of defeated governments.
President Donald Trump this week made the argument that the removal of Confederate monuments could lead down a slippery slope to the taking down of monuments to the Founding Fathers; he also implied the removal of Confederate monuments was tantamount to changing history. However, many of those in favor of their dismantling argue that they represent a painful legacy of slavery and racism that should not be glorified.
Monuments are traditionally erected while a particular regime is in power, but in the United States, Confederate monuments were erected only after the fall of the Confederacy with the spread of a sanitized, revisionist narrative of a noble South that should have won but for the overwhelming military power of the North, said Tyler Stovall, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And for some, that belief still lingers today, he said.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the first spike in Confederate symbols is around the turn of the 20th century and the second spike is in the mid-1950s and 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
“If you look at it from a world perspective, is that you’ll have a regime that is overthrown, and one of the reactions to the overthrow is the destruction of symbols that represent it,” Stovall said, citing the toppling of the Soviet Union and, more recently, the tearing down of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of images of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring.
Here’s a look at how other countries have handled their monuments to fallen governments.
In post-World War II Germany, Nazi symbols that weren’t destroyed during the war were ordered demolished by the Allied Control Council. Any further creation of Nazi symbols or propaganda was also banned. Germany would later codify this ban into their criminal code.
“Any monument, memorial, poster, statue, edifice, street or highway name marker, emblem, tablet, or insignia which tends to preserve and keep alive the German military tradition, to revive militarism or to commemorate the Nazi Party, or which is of such a nature as to glorify incidents of war, and the functioning of military museums and exhibitions, and the erection, installation, or posting or other display on a building or other structure of any of the same, will be prohibited and declared illegal,” the directive reads.
In Berlin, the headquarters of the Nazi secret police, the SS leadership offices, and the Reich Security Main Office were razed in the aftermath of the war. In the late 1980s, the grounds were used as an exhibition to educate people about the horrors that occurred there. This “topography of terror” was opened as a permanent documentation center in 2010.
Leading up to and following the fall of the Soviet Union, numerous monuments to Soviet icons, such as Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, were toppled. In 1991, for example, a crowd of tens of thousands in Moscow tore down a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the USSR’s feared secret police force, the KGB.
The statue of “Iron Felix” now resides in Muzeon Park of the Arts, along with numerous busts of Lenin and a nose-less statue of Stalin. A curator of the park told Public Radio International that “the approach to the park is entirely historical, for the simple reason that the responsibility of any museum is to collect, store, protect and display.”
Similar parks exist elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. In Budapest’s Memento Park, 42 pieces of art from the post-World War II communist era are on display.
“These statues are a part of the history of Hungary,” the park’s architect wrote. “Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyze it and think about it!”
In Spain, a law of “historical memory” was passed in 2007 to provide reparation and recognition to those who suffered during the country’s civil war. The law includes a provision about monuments to Francisco Franco, who ruled over the country as a repressive dictator for nearly four decades.
The law instructs the government to take measures to remove shields, insignia, plaques and other objects or mentions commemorating the military uprising, civil war or dictatorship. However, objects with artistic, architectural or religious significance are protected.
The last statue of Franco was removed from the mainland in 2008, according to The Guardian. In the capital city of Madrid, the “Arco de la Victoria” still stands in testament to the defeat of the Republican forces by Franco’s loyalists during the Spanish Civil War.
One of the most controversial sites is Franco’s tomb, “El Valle de los Caídos” (the Valley of the Fallen), which is protected under the law.
The elaborate monument is also a mass grave, where the bodies of more than 30,000 people from both sides of the war are buried, according to the The Guardian. Although the site attracts tourists, it also brings fascist sympathizers from Spain’s far-right. In May, Spanish members of Parliament approved a measure urging the government to exhume Franco’s remains and re-intern them elsewhere, the Guardian reported.