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Tearing Down Statues Doesn’t Erase History, It Makes Us See It More Clearly

The protesters tearing down monuments to slaveholders and perpetrators of genocide are often accused of “erasing the past.” But their actions are bringing closer scrutiny on the figures these monuments celebrate — allowing history to be retold from the viewpoint of their victims.

A statue of Christopher Columbus is seen with its head removed at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park on June 10, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Tim Bradbury / Getty Images)

Anti-racism is a battle for memory. This is one of the most remarkable features of the wave of protests that has arisen worldwide after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Everywhere, anti-racist movements have put the past into question by targeting monuments that symbolize the legacy of slavery and colonialism: the Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Virginia; Theodore Roosevelt in New York City; Christopher Columbus in many US cities; the Belgian king Leopold II in Brussels; the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol; Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV and author of the infamous Code Noir in France; the father of modern Italian journalism and former propagandist for fascist colonialism, Indro Montanelli, and so on.

Whether they are toppled, destroyed, painted, or graffitied, these statues epitomize a new dimension of struggle: the connection between rights and memory. They highlight the contrast between the status of blacks and postcolonial subjects as stigmatized and brutalized minorities, and the symbolic place given in the public space to their oppressors — a space which also makes up the urban environment of our everyday lives.

Outbursts of Iconoclasm

It’s well-known that revolutions possess an “iconoclastic fury.” Whether it is spontaneous, like the destruction of churches, crosses, and Catholic relics during the first months of the Spanish Civil War, or more carefully planned, like the demolition of the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, this outburst of iconoclasm shapes any overthrow of the established order.

Film director Sergei Eisenstein opened October, his masterpiece on the Russian Revolution, with images of the crowd toppling a statue of Tsar Alexander III, and in 1956 the Budapest insurgents destroyed the statue of Stalin. In 2003 — as an unwillingly ironical confirmation of this historical rule — US troops staged the fall of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, with the complicity of many embedded television stations, in the attempt to disguise their occupation as a popular uprising.

Unlike in that case, wherever protest movements’ iconoclasm is authentic, it unfailingly arouses indignant reactions. The Communards were depicted as “vandals” and Gustave Courbet, one of those responsible for bringing down the column, thrown in jail. As for the Spanish anarchists, they were condemned as ferocious barbarians. A similar outrage has blossomed in recent weeks.

Boris Johnson was scandalized when the title “racist” was inscribed onto a statue of Churchill — a fact for which there is scholarly consensus, tied to current debates regarding both his depiction of Africans and his responsibility for the Bengal famine in 1943.

Emmanuel Macron angrily complained of similar iconoclasm in a message to the French nation which — tellingly — never mentioned the victims of racism: “This evening, I say to you very clearly, my dear fellow citizens, that the Republic will not erase any traces or any figures from its history. It will not forget any of its accomplishments. It will not topple any statue.”

In Italy, the throwing of red paint over a statue of Indro Montanelli in a public garden in Milan was unanimously denounced as a “fascist” and “barbarous” act by all newspapers and media, with the exception of Il Manifesto. Injured in the 1970s by left-wing terrorists, Montanelli was canonized as a heroic defender of democracy and freedom.

After the “cowardly offense” inflicted on his statue by the paint-throwers, an editorialist for Corriere della Sera insisted that such a hero should be remembered as a “sacred” figure. Yet, this “barbarous” act proved fruitful in unveiling to many Italians what Montanelli’s “sacred” accomplishments had been: in the 1930s, when he was a young journalist, he celebrated the

Fascist empire and its racial hierarchies; sent to Ethiopia as a war correspondent, he immediately bought an Eritrean girl aged fourteen in order to satisfy his sexual and domestic needs. For many commentators, these were the “customs of the time” and thus any charges of supporting colonialism, racism, and sexism are unfair and unwarranted. Yet, still in the 1960s, Montanelli condemned miscegenation as a source of civilizational decadence, with arguments borrowed directly from Arthur Gobineau’s 1853–55 Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races.

These were, indeed, the same arguments vigorously defended by the KKK in its opposition to the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the same period. Against any evidence, the spiritual father of two generations of Italian journalism fiercely denied that the Fascist army had conducted gas bombings during the Ethiopian War. The Milan “barbarians” wished to remind us of these simple facts.

Indeed, it is interesting to observe that most political leaders, intellectuals, and journalists outraged by the current wave of “vandalism” never expressed a similar indignation for the repeated episodes of police violence, racism, injustice, and systemic inequality against which the protest is directed. They have felt quite comfortable in such a situation.

Many of them had even praised a different iconoclastic deluge thirty years ago, when the statues of Marx, Engels, and Lenin were toppled in Central Europe. Whereas the imagined prospect of living among these types of monuments is intolerable and suffocating, they are quite proud of the statues of Confederate generals, slave traders, genocidal kings, legal architects of white supremacy, and propagandists of fascist colonialism that constitute the patrimonial legacy of Western societies. As they insist, “we will not erase any traces or any figures from our history.”

In France, toppling the monumental vestiges of colonialism and slavery is usually depicted as a form of “communitarianism” — a word currently given a pejorative sense, implicitly meaning that such vestiges exclusively bother the descendants of slaves and the colonized, not the white majority that fixes the aesthetic, historical, and memorial norms framing public space. Indeed, very often France’s supposed “universalism” possesses an unpleasant taste of “white communitarianism.”

Just like its ancestors did, the “iconoclastic fury” currently sweeping through cities on a global scale lays claim to new norms of tolerance and civil coexistence. Far from erasing the past, anti-racist iconoclasm carries a new historical consciousness that inevitably affects the urban landscape. The contested statues celebrate the past and its actors, a simple fact that legitimates their removal. Cities are living bodies that change according to the needs, values, and wishes of their inhabitants, and these transformations are always the outcome of political and cultural conflicts.

Toppling monuments that commemorate the rulers of the past gives a historical dimension to the struggles against racism and oppression in the present. It means probably even more than that. It is another way to oppose the gentrification of our cities that implies the metamorphosis of their historical districts into reified and fetishized sites.

Once a city is classified as “world heritage” by UNESCO, it is doomed to die. The “barbarians” who topple statues implicitly protest against the current neoliberal policies that simultaneously expel the lower classes from urban centers, and transform them into frozen vestiges. The symbols of old slavery and colonialism are combined with the dazzling visage of real estate capitalism — and these are the protestors’ targets.

The View of the Vanquished

According to a more sophistic and perverse argument, anti-racist iconoclasm expresses an unconscious desire to deny the past. As oppressive and unpleasant as the past was, the argument goes, it cannot be changed. This is certainly true. But working through the past — particularly a past made of racism, slavery, colonialism, and genocides — does not mean celebrating it, as most of the toppled statues do.

In Germany, the Nazi past is overwhelmingly present in city squares and streets through memorials that commemorate its victims instead of their persecutors. In Berlin, the Holocaust Memorial is erected as a warning to future generations (das Mahnmal). The crimes of the SS are not remembered through a statue celebrating Heinrich Himmler, but rather through an outdoor and indoor exhibition called “Topography of Terror” that stands on the site of a former SS office.

We don’t need statues of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco to remember their misdeeds. It is precisely because Spaniards have not forgotten Francoism that Pedro Sánchez’s government decided to remove the remains of the Caudillo from his monumental grave. It is only by desacralizing the Valle de los Caídos that this fascist monument could be consigned to the realm of memory in a non-oblivious democratic society.

This is why it is deeply misleading to attribute our current anti-racist iconoclasm to the intentions of the ancient damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory). In ancient Rome, this practice aimed to eliminate public commemorations of emperors or other personalities whose presence clashed with new rulers. They had to be forgotten.

The erasure of Leon Trotsky from official Soviet pictures under Stalinism was another form of damnatio memoriae, and was inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984. In the fictional state of Oceania, he wrote, the past was completely rewritten: “Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered.”

These examples are misleading comparisons, because they refer to the erasure of the past by the powerful. Yet, anti-racist iconoclasm provocatively aims to liberate the past from their control, to “brush the past against the grain” by rethinking it from the point of view of the ruled and the vanquished, not through the eyes of victors.

We know that our architectural and artistic patrimony is burdened with the legacy of oppression. As a famous aphorism from Walter Benjamin put it, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Those who topple statues are not blind nihilists: they don’t wish to destroy the Colosseum or the pyramids.

Rather, they would prefer not to forget that, as Bertolt Brecht pointed out, these remarkable monuments were built by slaves. Edward Colston and Leopold II will not be forgotten: their statues should be conserved in museums, and curated in ways that explain not only who they were and their extraordinary accomplishments, but also why and how their persons became examples of virtue and philanthropy, objects of veneration — in short, the embodiments of their civilization.

Global Wave

This wave of anti-racist iconoclasm is global and does not admit exceptions. Italians (including Italian-Americans) and Spaniards are proud of Columbus, but statues of the man who “discovered” the Americas do not have the same symbolic meaning for indigenous peoples.

Their iconoclasm legitimately claims a public recognition and inscription of their own memory and perspective: a “discovery” that inaugurated four centuries of genocide. In Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, two statues of Victor Schœlcher — traditionally celebrated by the French Republic as a symbol of the abolition of slavery in 1848 — were toppled on May 22. As right-wing daily newspaper Le Figaro tells us, “The new censors believe themselves to possess the truth and to be the guardians of virtue.”

In fact, the “new censors” (i. e. young anti-racist activists) wish to turn the page on the paternalistic and subtly racist tradition of French “universalism.” It always depicted the abolition of slavery as a gift to the slaves by the enlightened Republic — a tradition well summarized by Macron in the speech quoted above.

The “new censors” share the assessment of Frantz Fanon, who analyzed this cliché in his 1952 book Black Skin White Masks: “The black man contented himself with thanking the white man, and the most forceful proof of the fact is the impressive number of statues erected all over France and the colonies to show white France stroking the kinky hair of this nice Negro whose chains had just been broken.”

Working through the past is not an abstract task or a purely intellectual exercise. Rather, it requires a collective effort and cannot be dissociated from political action. This is the meaning of the iconoclasm of recent days. Indeed, while it has erupted within a global anti-racist mobilization, the ground had already been prepared by years of counter-memorial commitment and historical investigation advanced by a multitude of associations and activists.

Like all collective action, iconoclasm deserves attention and constructive criticism. To contemptuously stigmatize it is merely to provide apologias for a history of oppression.