Adolf Hitler Place? Statues of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin? As controversies about historical monuments rage across the United States, Europe’s negotiations with the past suggest strategies for America’s future.
Having experienced autocracy, communism, democracy, fascism and monarchy over the past century, Europeans have dealt repeatedly with public memory controversies.
In one Czech town, the statue of Czechoslovakia’s first president has been removed and reinstalled five times.
When I asked an elderly East German woman in Merseburg for directions in early 1991, she replied that she was no longer sure since the street names had changed more often than she could remember. Having lived since 1918 under an authoritarian monarchy, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, Communist dictatorship and democratic unified Germany, East Germans know well the impermanence of historical markers since every new government brought with it new monuments, street names and memorials.
For historians of the politics of the past, such “sites of memory” shape and reflect national identity and political dynamics. In short, there is no such thing as a fixed history, let alone a universally shared understanding of the past.
Former Franklin & Marshall College classics professor Harriet Flower has illustrated how the Roman Empire’s obsession with commemorating and erasing the past, including through statues of emperors, was affected by its shift from republican to imperial rule and from one dynasty to another.
In Europe, with the emergence of modern nationalism in the 19th century, elites fashioned national narratives that provided citizens of newly industrialized societies with monuments representing, in the words of anthropologist Benedict Anderson, “imagined communities.”
The most thoroughgoing reckoning with the past — not only in Europe, but globally — has taken place in Germany, where the genocidal crimes of the Nazi regime continue to exercise powerful influence on public discourse and politics. In a process referred to as Vergangenheitsbewältigung or Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, German efforts to “come to terms with the past” have unfolded in fits and starts — and never without internal dissension: West German youth in the late 1960s challenged family members to defend their behavior in the Third Reich, while former East Germans struggled to reconcile histories of Nazi persecution of Communists with new knowledge about German complicity in the Holocaust.
Former concentration camps in Germany are historical museums, as are Nazi death camps in Poland, most famously Auschwitz, where 90% of the victims were Jews. Symbols of the Hitler Reich are banned — the Berlin stadium built for the 1936 Olympics, for example, replaced swastikas with historical plaques. Throughout Germany, over 1,200 brass cobblestones known as Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) mark the former homes of deported Jewish Germans.
The German capital alone marks over 300 sites of memory — most to victims of National Socialism, but also to Communism and the 1884-85 Berlin Conference where European powers (and the United States) devised rules for partitioning Africa. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located in the heart of the city, next to the iconic Brandenburg Gate and American Embassy.
As Germany’s leading contemporary philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has argued, Auschwitz occupies the center of German national identity; the burdens of the past are ongoing and cannot disappear.
East Germans were not, of course, the only Europeans to overthrow Communism, though their dismantling of the Berlin Wall represented the most dramatic destruction of a Cold War symbol and barrier. Throughout Eastern and Central Europe, statues of Communist leaders, especially Lenin, fell in the 1989 revolutions and the decade that followed.
The politics of the past extends across Europe from the Baltics to the Balkans to the Mediterranean, where controversies over fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s burial site have roiled Spaniards as Benito Mussolini’s northern Italian tomb continues to attract tourists.
Over the past weeks, inspired by American outrage after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, Europeans have staged widespread demonstrations against domestic racism. A Parisian statue of Voltaire, ideological godfather of the French Revolution and slave trade profiteer, was defaced, while activists in Bristol, England, dumped a statue honoring slave trader Edward Colston in the harbor. In Antwerp, Belgium, authorities removed a statue of Belgian King Leopold II, colonizer of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, after protesters set it on fire.
Indeed, European critics see direct parallels between American Confederate memorials and those honoring European imperialists. In the same way defenders of the Confederacy paint sympathetic portraits of plantation owners, many Europeans believe the colonization of Africans and Asians improved non-Christians’ stations in life. What both narratives disregard is clear historical evidence that the systems of slavery and imperialism rested on racial hierarchy, economic exploitation, family separation and systemic violence. That Europe’s so-called “civilizing mission” was backed by the gun was made patent when weakened imperial powers were forced to relinquish their colonies after World War II drained them of military and economic power.
As Americans debate the meaning of their monuments, Europeans continue to pursue their own politics of the past. To be sure, removing statues speaks powerfully to a society’s rejection of the ideas and values associated with those figures. Some historians compare directly efforts to purge Germany of Nazi monuments with calls to remove Confederate memorials. But as in the United States, judgments are rarely one-sided.
While some Europeans suggest that half-burying, tipping or upending monuments better represents society’s rejection of their message, still others argue for adding historical plaques or even creating alternate sites for memorials and statues, as Hungarians have done in Budapest with Memento Park and Lithuanians with Gruto Parkas, both of which house relocated Communist monuments.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated, “This is a country you can only love with a broken heart.” According to the philosopher Habermas, it is the unavoidable parts of the past that make us accountable today.
As Europeans weigh the burdens of history, their earlier confrontations with painful legacies provide a number of models of reflective and deliberative action. Perhaps in this respect Europe’s politics of the past offers Americans potential paths forward.
Maria D. Mitchell is a professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.