On Monumental Impermanence

Morice statue
Léopold Morice’s statue of the Republic/Marianne in Paris’s
Place de la
République. Photo by Ian Germani.

(Published 6 December 2017)

Most of the time, they go unnoticed, though they may be very large. They occupy parks and squares in cities and towns all over the world, but people everywhere pass them by, eyes unseeing and minds intent on other objects. I refer, of course, to monuments, erected, over time, by civic authorities, sometimes aided by citizens’ associations or by national governments, to commemorate important events, historic figures, or abstract ideals. Only occasionally do these monuments re-emerge from relative invisibility, as they become focal points for civic ceremonies or political demonstrations. Writing in 2010 of the monumental statue representing the female figure of Liberty in Paris’s Place de la République, I described her as a Sleeping Beauty waiting for the kiss of a new political crisis to bring her back to life. That crisis came in January, 2015, with the Charlie-Hebdo Massacre. On 10 January, the monument inaugurated by the Third Republic in 1883 and subsequently a sacred site for the French Left became the focal point of a demonstration by world leaders and over 700,000 French citizens united in opposition to terrorism and in defence of free speech. For those who may chance to look at them, monuments like that in the Place de la République give a false impression of solidity, for they are constructed of solid materials: of bronze, marble, granite and steel. Indeed, this impression is intentionally contrived. In the case of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia, for example, the pyramidal dome is supported by sixteen black columns made from granite that is 300 million years old, chosen to fulfill the object of the architect, that “neither Decay nor Time shall ruin this Shrine.” And yet, nothing is more vulnerable to time than a monument. Indeed, try as they might the creators of monuments cannot fix their identity and meaning for all time; these are altered, sometimes temporarily, often irrevocably, by those who, through word or deed, lay claim to them. Even if a monument survives physically intact, it may come to acquire a symbolic meaning very different from that intended by its creators. For example, when President François Mitterand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany clasped hands before the Douaumont ossuary in 1984, fifty years after its creation, they transformed a memorial to the dead of Verdun into a symbol of their nations’ reconciliation. Monuments have been much in the news lately, more often as sites of contestation than of reconciliation. Tragically, in Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrations by so-called “alt-right” protestors objecting to the removal of a memorial to Robert E. Lee on 12 August led to violence and the death of civil rights activist Heather Heyer. Subsequently, President Donald Trump excited controversy by his refusal explicitly to condemn the racist values espoused by the right-wing demonstrators as well as his implication of a moral equivalency between those demonstrators and their opponents. President Trump has also come to the defence of statues commemorating the Confederacy, tweeting his sentiment that it is “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Unnoticed for so long, Confederate monuments throughout the United States suddenly stick out like sore thumbs, tainted not only by their creators’ nostalgia for a cause committed to the institution of slavery, but additionally by the intolerant views and violent behaviour of their contemporary defenders. Little wonder that cities and states have accelerated plans to remove these monuments from city parks and streets. There have been official night-time removals of Confederate monuments in Baltimore, Maryland and unofficial ones elsewhere, such as in Durham, North Carolina, where protesters toppled the Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial from its plinth in front of the courthouse. Confederate monuments have become a lightning rod for America’s culture wars every bit as symbolically significant as the Confederate flag after the Charleston Church shooting in June 2015, when nine worshippers were killed by a white supremacist and the state legislature voted to remove the flag from the State Capitol.

Similar culture wars are being fought in other parts of the world. In England and parts of Africa, statues of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist whose name is attached to the prestigious Oxford University scholarships, have also been the subject of contestation. In 2015, protests at Cape Town University in which a statue of Rhodes was pelted with excrement led to the statue’s removal. At Oxford, a “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign led to a vote on the fate of a Rhodes statue at Oriel College. The decision of the College was “that the statue should remain in place and that the college will seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there.” In the Spanish capital of Madrid, the eightieth anniversary of the bombing of Guernica by the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War has this year witnessed the dismantling, by request of the German government, of a mausoleum built to honour seven pilots from the Legion who are buried there. A much greater monument to the Nationalist dead from the Civil War, built with the use of twenty thousand slave labourers by General Franco following his victory, still stands although the resurgence of republican memory, for so long repressed, has led to calls for its demolition. In Asia, it is not old monuments but new ones that have excited controversy. The erection outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul of a life-size statue commemorating the 200,000 mostly Korean “Comfort Women” pressed into sexual slavery by the Japanese before and during the Second World War has led to the creation of dozens of other monuments elsewhere in South Korea, but also as far afield as Glendale, California. Most recently, five such statues have been installed on buses operated by a public transit company in Seoul. The Japanese government has protested against the statues, arguing that they contravene a rather uneasy agreement reached in 2015 between it and the government of Korea, according to which Japan apologized for the suffering of the Comfort Women but refused to accept full legal responsibility. Where Korean civic officials have attempted to remove the statues, the pressure of public opinion has quickly led to their re-installation.

All of these culture wars demonstrate that monuments are fundamentally ephemeral, subject to the vagaries of time, public opinion, and both domestic and international political upheaval. They also, for all their impassivity and immobility, excite people’s passions. Those passions themselves determine what may or may not be possible with respect to a monument’s fate. During the German occupation of France during the Second World War, the occupiers melted down over 1500 French monuments, particularly those honouring heroes of the Left. Many of these were unmourned by the French themselves, but the Nazis did not dare to touch the statue in the Place de la République. Surely the very academic Oriel College solution – to keep the monument but to provide interpretive material explaining its context – is one that will appeal to historians, who hate to see any cultural artifact, no matter how offensive to contemporary mores, consigned to the dustbin. But one doubts such a solution is possible in the context of the United States’ current political polarization. The likeliest outcome is that the next few months will witness the removal – sometimes quietly, sometimes less than quietly – of more statues of Robert E. Lee and Andrew Jackson from America’s streets and parks. Monuments are as fragile as the institutions and reputations they embody.

IAN GERMANI is a Professor in the Department of History and Director of the Humanities Research Institute.