Public Monuments at a Global Level

Eric Martin's picture

For many of us in the U.S. the Fall term is about to start and it begins in the midst of a historical controversy that is likely to provide good teaching opportunities. I am curious as to how other countries have dealt with the issue of public monuments to a divisive, or even dark period, in their history. It seems like a good spot to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of how other countries have approached such matters, as we decide how to proceed further with this issue as a society here in the U.S. 

Categories: Discussion

Another colleague just raised this question in relation to the post-Soviet world. My response was: You pose a fascinating comparative question between Confederate and Soviet monuments in the 'post-colonial' context of the American South and USSR. Certainly statues of Lenin (and some other Russian figures) were torn down throughout KZ, particularly by those more passionate about nationalist revival, though others have been left standing to this day. Some Kazakhs still defend Lenin, at least partially, for what they believe to be a genuinely affirmative nationalities policy which they then blame Stalin (and post-Stalinist leaders) for severely corrupting (cf. Polly Jones, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-70, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). The significant Russian population leftover in KZ also affected outcomes. Debates I suspect continue, though probably not as often or intensely as in the more immediate post-Soviet period. Russia's recent annexation of Crimea and efforts to dominate Ukraine, however, may well have stirred the debates up again, I am not sure, but it would be an interesting question, since nationalist sentiment was deeply stoked by those recent developments. I think efforts by white nationalists/racists in the U.S. and Russian nationalists in KZ mobilizing to protect the Russian heritage display parallels and merit measured comparison.

See also: Jude Sheerin, "Should Washington and Jefferson monuments [at Mt Rushmore] come down?," BBC News, Aug 18, 2017. URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40978515

Earlier in the Fall 2017 semester, my university hosted a panel, consisting of historians and political scientists, to discuss the controversy about public Confederate monuments and memorials. While this discussion seems to have disappeared from the national conversation in the U.S., I happen to be taking a world history class this semester as well and I think your question poses an interesting way of combining a historical account of monuments and monument-making with world history.

There are a few books about monuments or memorials in the U.S., and how such forms of remembrance occur, or sometimes fail to occur. For example, Erika Doss’s Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Kenneth E. Foote’s Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscape of Violence and Tragedy (Rev. ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003) both discuss such issues. Are there equivalents of such scholarship within the field of world history? Is the physical manifestation of community memory a framework for world historians to make global connections? Perhaps another way of examining monuments on a global scale is through contextualizing monuments/memorials in one nation that describe the actions of another, such as WWII memorials to U.S. military divisions in Europe. I’m not sure if typical examinations of history and memory would substitute for a global analysis of monuments.

Margo McCutcheon
Graduate Student
Texas A&M University-Commerce

There are some monuments that come to mind that have had similar histories as those of the Confederate statues and memorials in the United States. These can help expand the discussion and give different perspectives on how other nations and groups of people have handled the issues that arise from controversial memorialization. Below are a few you might be interested in.

One of these controversial memorials is the Columbus Lighthouse on the Santo Domingo Este, in the Dominican Republic. The Columbus Lighthouse was built to commemorate the 'discovery of America" by the Europeans. The lighthouse is exceptional, and in sad but true first contact fashion, the building of the lighthouse was accomplished only by displacing many low-income Dominicans from the site where the memorial was constructed. Another cruel twist regarding the creation of the giant lighthouse, among such a poor population is that the lighthouse requires a great deal of electrical power. Yet many of the residents surrounding the lighthouse do not have electricity within their dwellings.

Another controversial memorial would by the Statue of Peace, which is also called the Sonyesang, or statue of a girl. This statue, commissioned by South Korea is located directly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. The statue is a representation of a young girl in historically Korean dress. The intent of the statue was to recognize the Korean women who were forced to become "comfort women" and victims of sexual violence by the Japanese military during World War II. The placement of the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy is in itself a political statement, since the Japanese government has refused to acknowledge the mistreatment and rape of Korean women during the war.

Interestingly, this issue came up in an introductory history course this semester. Navigating history, memory, and burgeoning education proves trickier than simply acknowledging the good, bad and ugly. Andras Edit author of the article “Public Monuments in Changing Societies” addresses Easter European monuments as erected to as projects of Lenin through the use of statues to propagate communism. Edit concludes the essay with the changes in monuments as the societies nationalist identities changed. Essentially, arguing that as the political landscape changes, so does the memoriam for historical moments and monuments. With each new generation interpretation shifts allowing these moments to be reevaluated and recast in history.

Amanda Watkins
Graduate Student
Texas A&M University-Commerce