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Invitation to a Beheading

What can American statue-topplers learn from Europe?

Vladislav Davidzon
June 24, 2020
Defaced statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, in Brussels, June 10, 2020KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/ Getty Images
Defaced statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, in Brussels, June 10, 2020KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/ Getty Images

Are we living through a truly revolutionary moment or merely the jejune simulacrum of one? Either way, this is undeniably a moment of tempestuous iconoclasm. Monuments and statues to the “problematic” heroes of the grand narratives of an older order are being defaced and toppled across multiple continents. As the American-inspired protests sweep across Western Europe from Marseille to Bristol, and from Amsterdam to London, we should be satisfied that America in the midst of the epoch of Trump has not experienced the oft-predicted decline of its cultural hegemony.

Needless to say, judging historical figures according to the ideological standards of the present constitutes both a mental and spiritual category error. On the other hand, that basic axiom must be balanced against the almost universally held moral intuition that the most terrifying and egregious monsters of history should not and can not be memorialized by a just and healthy society. Yet Americans and Western Europe are only now catching up to the statue wars that took place in Eastern Europe five years ago. In the process they are mostly reenacting the same exact arguments that we Eastern Europeans engaged in and observed half a decade ago.

But before returning to the East and what my experiences there suggest about the course of events playing out in the current protests, let me describe the scene that I recently observed in Western Europe.

The weekend before last, a statue of the Prussian ruler Otto von Bismarck in Altona, a borough of Hamburg, Germany, was splattered with cherry red paint. At that very same moment during which activists were providing the “Iron Chancellor” with his new red coat, the Place de la République square in Paris was being transformed into a warzone. A minority of the protesters who had been brandishing Black Lives Matter signs stenciled with English slogans engaged in brutal raiding sorties against the phalanxes of French gendarmes. I watched one protester with a particularly fierce visage run up to a fallen riot policeman who had gotten separated from his unit, and crumple him with a precisely delivered kick to the back of the kneecap. The French riot police drove the rioters off the square with truncheons and tear gas. On Sunday night, French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to confront the obvious while delivering the speech that unwound the last of the quarantine prohibitions: “the Republic will erase no trace or name from our history, it will tear down no statue,” he promised. In the United Kingdom, the process began with mob attacks on various British slavers. Statues were toppled from their plinths or thrown headfirst into the harbor by frenzied crowds who did not seem to be guided by a careful study of history and may have only recently learned of these men’s deeds.

Troublingly for many, the frenzy soon leapt from the unambiguously controversial cases of minor historical figures to attacks on those whose lives constitute the core of Western history books. Such processes, as any student or observer of revolutionary times will know, have a way of quickly escalating to the point where the most emotionally and politically maximal position is the one that carries the moment. Gandhi, progenitor of the doctrine of peaceful resistance (but who indeed held chauvinist ideas about Africans that were endemic to his time and milieu) was quickly branded and spray-painted a racist. Winston Churchill’s statue in front of the British parliament has been ensconced in a protective steel cocoon in the middle of London. Churchill’s granddaughter acknowledged that the statue of this “complex man, with infinitely more good than bad in the ledger of his life” would likely have to be transferred to a museum for its own good.

So what can Americans and Western Europeans learn from recent, similar historical events in Eastern Europe?

Soon upon ascending to political power, the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government of Petro Poroshenko passed a wide-ranging package of “decommunization” laws, whose measures included the renaming of streets, the opening up of former KGB archives to historians, and the mandated removal of Communist heroes from public spaces. The cumulative taking down of literally thousands of Lenin statues across Ukrainian territory that took place between 2014 and 2016 came to be known as the “Leninopad” or the “Leninfall.”

Moscow, as I have previously written for Tablet, selected the opposite approach and, even after the fall of Communism, chose to construct statues to Communist Soviet heroes as the Putin regime tied its legitimacy to nostalgia for WWII Soviet memory. Those statues continue to be erected.

Once the statues are breathed to life and placed on pedestals, they are our co-citizens.

Between 2015 and 2018, I lived in and reported from Ukraine while editing my literary journal, The Odessa Review, and so had the chance to observe at first hand the process of the toppling and removing of thousands of Communist-era monuments. Watching the statues of Lenin taken down across Southern and Eastern Ukraine was deeply instructive. The ones in Odessa city proper were taken down by Odessa’s popular Jewish Mayor Eduard Gurwits in the 1990s, with the Communist-era street names all reverting back to their pre-revolutionary equivalents. Yet, there were many people who refused the new order of things. Twenty-five years after the first wave of Ukrainian decommunization some old timers would still tell their friends to meet them on the corner of “Karl Marx” Street rather than on the corner of “Ekaterininskaya” (named after Catherine the Great).

In Kyiv the atmosphere of the toppling of Lenin at the conclusion of the Euromaidan revolution was raucous, revolutionary, liberatory, and carnivalesque. In other parts of Ukraine (the solidly anti-Soviet Western Ukrainians had done it decades ago in the early ’90s of their own accord) the process was carried out in a controlled manner by the police or Interior Ministry troops as the locals gazed on with satisfaction, curiosity, wonder or simmering resentment. In many of the small towns across Odessa region (and others farther east), I observed the process taking place in a haphazard and uncontrolled manner. Large groups of men, many dressed in fatigues, would assemble to yell at each other, with the police often reduced to observing them and being barely able to keep large-scale brawls from breaking out. At some point, amid scuffling and pushing, some of the younger men gripped by feelings of Ukrainian patriotism would either push the statue down by force or connect it to a truck with cables. This divisive spectacle of hours of yelling between neighbors split on the question was very grim.

As Tom de Waal, a most keen observer of Eastern European and Caucasian politics wrote at the time:

There are two extreme positions. One is that everything must be kept, regardless of whose name it bears. That is surely untenable. No one wants to see a street called Adolf-Hitler-Straße. Cities in the former Soviet Union should not have to keep statues of Lenin and Stalin in their central squares. The other position is to take down all reminders of the past that do not fit with current-day orthodoxies. That approach too is problematic. In Eastern Europe, it has made history a kaleidoscope of vanishing images, in which the past is instantly forgotten and its lessons unheeded.

Many more seminal and central figures of European history and intellectual life were all complicit to one degree or another in the unreflective racism or anti-Semitism of the epochs in which they lived. Changing social mores fairly applied could bring down at least half of the statues to the monarchs of Europe. No one in post-religious Europe is—at least not yet—going to come knocking for the statues of Martin Luther. (Was his rabid theological anti-Semitism a crime? The question is ridiculous on its face.) Yet what would the reaction of European Protestants be in the case that an energized and ideologically committed minority did?

Monuments are the products of the mores and ideological fixations of their time. They glorify and immortalize the figures who shaped the world in which they lived through either their brute force of will, their creativity, or their capacity to wage war. If the very idea of putting up statues to kings and war leaders and renowned writers now seems antiquarian to some, well, logically so should the carnal pagan act of tearing them down to dispel their aura. The arguments of those who believe that statues are merely hunks of steel that we erect in the midst of our cities, and which lack any meaning outside of those impulses with which we wish to imbue them do not account for the strong passions that accompany the act of erecting and toppling them. These are acts that continue to bind the average stroller in the street to the great men or women who lived alongside them in societies that are descended both intellectually and aesthetically from Greek and Roman traditions. Conversely, the desecration and destruction of the statues of the ancestors of one’s enemies is the first order of business upon seizing their territory. Vigilante attacks on the statues one despises can and surely will bring retaliatory strikes on the statues and monuments that one venerates.

The Belgian King Leopold, for example (a statue was removed in a suburb of Antwerp—he constitutes an understandably major target for the movement), it should be noted finally and unequivocally, was responsible for some of the most unspeakable crimes and atrocities against humanity. He was a villain under any fair-minded contemporary reading of history. He was also an ancestor of the reigning King of Belgium in a monarchy where the crown represents the only institution that binds together French-speaking and Dutch-speaking Belgians. Which is not to say, lest there be any misunderstandings, that I personally care in the least about the fate of the Belgium monarchy. I myself am personally romantic about the deposed Romanian monarchy of my Chernowitz-born great-grandparents (God save Queen Margaret of Romania, Custodian of the Crown) and if my own ancestors had not been Soviet revolutionaries and Communist Party apparatchiks, I would have much preferred on the aesthetic level that they had fought with the Russian White cavalry like the young men of the Gunzburg family had. (In more civilized times, the cavalry officers, even the odd Jewish ones, were issued horses whose coloration matched the color of their handlebar mustaches.) Which is to simply admit that one does not get to choose one’s history or the side on which one’s ancestors may have toiled or fought.

It seems that we are living through a moment in which we are all being forced to relearn the basic tenets of political theory in real time. Attempts to impose minority-held beliefs—based on either authentic or a pretense of radical tolerance—on pluralities without first engaging in the liberal democratic process of honest debate and argumentation will lead to those questions being solved by the deployment force.

It is undeniable that there were those among Eastern Ukrainians who had sided with the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine in the wake of imbibing deftly produced and propagandistic Russian television reports of Lenin being thrown off his pedestal in other parts of the country.

If the Leninopad has taught us anything, it is that once the statues are breathed to life and placed on pedestals, they are our co-citizens. Like any other man or woman who has behaved badly, they are entitled to procedural democratic rights and a fair hearing before they can be bundled off to a lonely place and banished from the public square.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.