Why Some Statues In Europe Should Be Torn Down (And Others Shouldn’t)

Imagine visiting the German city of Frankfurt and walking down Heinrich Himmler Avenue, taking a left on Reinhard Heydrich Plaza, continuing down Joseph Goebbels Boulevard, and ending up in front of a golden statue of Adolf Hitler. It would never happen—in fact, sounds like a scene out of the TV show Man in the High Castle.

Whoever has visited Germany will know that all the Nazi emblems were purged, in both West and East Germany, following World War II. Monuments today are reserved for politicians of the post-war period, the reunification of the 1990s, as well as resistance fighters during the Nazi era. Germany, without a doubt, has done a commendable job of educating the public about the horrors of its past and preserving artifacts for historical reappraisal. So far as controversial monuments in Germany go, the only one I can think of is the recently erected statue of Karl Marx in his birthplace of Trier.

A Godwinesque opener of sorts, and yet travel through Europe and you’ll soon discover that not all countries have done what Germany did. Having studied at a French university, I can attest that the French have never accepted responsibility for the crimes committed by their collaborationist government in the south, known as the Republic of Vichy. This name was only created later, as the official title of the non-occupied zone was the French Republic from the invasion in 1940 until liberation by the United States in 1944. President De Gaulle considered the real French Republic to have never ceased to exist, leading to the popular saying “Non, Vichy n’était pas la France” (“No, Vichy was not France”). The persecution and deportation of the Jewish community there was only recognized by President Chirac in 1995, sparking a historical debate that is still ongoing today.

But the master of having an ambiguous relationship with one’s past is Italy. That country is filled with fascist insignia and monuments, while practically every flea market will sell you artifacts that blatantly glorify Mussolini. Suggesting that Italy has not dealt with its own past can turn a conversation heated in no time. Not only have fascist monuments not been torn down, new ones have been erected as recently as 2012.

That is not to say that giving activists free rein over the removal of statues is a good idea. The conversation surrounding Black Lives Matter and its opposition to some monuments have reached Europe, but it has most intensely affected the United Kingdom, where the purging of statues has kicked COVID-19 out of the headlines. On its list of 78 statues it would like to see removed, Black Lives Matter UK names former prime minister William Gladstone (in office from 1868 to 1894). As Dr. David Jeffrey writes, the four-time liberal PM was against the slave trade, opposed the colonization of Africa, introduced the secret ballot, expanded the vote among working-class men, legalized trade unions, introduced universal schooling from ages five to 12, pushed for home rule for Ireland, fought against landlord and aristocratic privilege, and almost singlehandedly built the modern tax system. Yet despite his roaring liberal credentials, his statue is being targeted over unfounded accusations that he owned slaves himself.

Then there’s the push to remove statues of Winston Churchill, which would be a particular blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (he wrote a book on Churchill after all). Churchill has come under fire over Britain’s involvement in the Bengal famine of 1943, which cost the lives of between two and three million people. Churchill’s knowledge, responsibility, and opinion on the matter have been hotly debated in recent weeks, adding to the general understanding that Churchill is a complex figure who needs more historical study. Associating him with the famine is at present based on conjecture and bad faith. Hillsdale College has collected the relevant documentation, which largely shows that Churchill acted in good conscience.

In Belgium, meanwhile, protesters have a much better case in demanding the removal of King Leopold II. Belgium’s second monarch is credited with significant social reforms, such as largely outlawing child labor, compensation for workplace accidents, and giving Sundays off. However, what he’s better known for is the private colonization of the Congo, which began in 1885. With the help of mercenaries, he ruthlessly exploited the country for resources and hard and forced labor, with those who worked too slowly having their hands cut off. The historical consensus is that his reign caused the deaths of 10 million people in the Congo. Before his own death, he gave away his authority and “property” to the Belgian state, effectively making Belgium a colonial power in the process. Keeping a statue of him on the streets of Brussels is like erecting a statue of Hitler for building the Autobahn. By every reasonable standard, Leopold II monuments belong only in museums.

The fact is that two things can be true at once: yes, the left cancels those whom they find inconvenient in the first place; and yes, there are statues that do not deserve public glorification. Removing a statue doesn’t mean erasing its history, nor do existing statues endorse all of the views—public or otherwise—of a particular persona. A statue is erected for the actions, successes, and principles that a person stood for. We need to strike a balance between recognizing bad deeds while not judging historical characters by the social standards of today.

What ought to happen to statues of Confederate leaders is for Americans to decide. But whatever the case, it should be undertaken on the basis of a moral compass that is understandable to all.

This article was first published by The American Conservative.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

2 Responses

  1. Adelin REMY

    Bill, you are totally wrong with Leopold II. Here is why:

    1° There is no historical consensus on the 10-million figure, quite the opposite: The “genocide” was never mentioned anywhere before the book of Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 1999) who, first, advanced the fictitious, refuted (1) and cross-referenced figure thousands of times on internet (what you call maybe “historical consensus”) of 10 million: neither by Barbara Emerson (Leopold II of the Belgians: King of colonialism, 1979) nor by Joseph Ki-Zerbo (Histoire de l’Afrique noire, 1978) nor by the Congolese themselves during independence (1960). There was therefore no genocide in the Congo under Léopold II (Barbara Emerson 1999, Jean Stengers 1999 & 2007, David Van Reybrouck 2010, Aymeric de Lamotte 2015, Jean-Pierre Nzeza Kabu Zex-Kongo 2018, Vincent Dujardin this Saturday in La Libre Belgique).

    2° As I wrote to the Wall Street Journal on April 20, 2004 which published me (2), the alleged “genocide” of 10+ million Congolese by Leopold II is an absurdity. Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the best African historian who cannot be suspected of sympathy for the colonial regimes (History of Black Africa, 1978), writes that there were 43,500 Congolese workers in the rubber industry in 1903, a year of maximum production. It is impossible to compare these 43,500 workers with the totally extravagant figure of 10 million, or 435,000 deaths per year or 1,200 deaths per day, for a population of maximum 1,500 Europeans in 1906.

    3° Still short of figures, King Leopold II’s pseudo-historians claim that 500,000 to 5 million were killed by epidemics, population displacement, exhaustion linked to forced labor, famines, and the decline in fertility in the whole of Congo.

    4° The 500,000-to-5-million figure is derived from Jean-Paul Sanderson’s thesis “The demography of the Congo under Belgian colonization”, UCL Catholic University of Louvain 2010 with 4 demographic evolution scenarios between 1885 and 1920 for Congo: according to the author, Scenario 2 (10 million) is quite unrealistic (assez irréaliste) (p. 282), Scenario 3 (4 million) includes “particularly high” (particulièrement élevée) (or too high?) mortality and “implies that the actions carried out on part of the territory by the Europeans present in the Congo would have had very strong repercussions on the whole of the territory” (p. 270) and Scenario 4 as “likely” (vraisemblable) with a drop in the population of 500,000 between 1885 and 1900, while specifying that this is only an assumption (hypothèse) (p. 275). So, from explorer-journalist Stanley (42 million population in the English version of his book corrected to 29 million in the French version, because of a gross miscalculation, 1885) (3) to historian-novelist (4) Hochschild (10 million deaths, half of the Congolese population, derived from Stanley’s second figure, 1999), from novelist Joseph Conrad, journalist-pacifist Edward D. Morel to writer Mark Twain (10 million dead initially in King Leopold’s Soliloquy 1907 corrected by Morel to 3 million), no one could have a precise idea of ​​the evolution of the population between 1885 and 1910. And still less before the arrival of the Belgians.

    5° When asked about epidemics, population displacement, exhaustion linked to forced labor, famines, nobody can explain when, how and how many victims in the whole of Congo and why these were not taken into account in Sanderson’s thesis.

    6° Your statement “Keeping a statue of him on the streets of Brussels is like erecting a statue of Hitler for building the Autobahn”, that implies a comparison between Leopold II and Hitler, is outrageous for all Belgians, for all those who devoted their life to Congo for health, education and infrastructure (and their children and grandchildren), not forgetting those who fought Germany during the Second World War.

    7° My interest is limited to the themes of “genocide”, even “moral genocide” and “massacre” and not to any other aspect of colonization.

    I hope you will correct these historical errors.

    Best regards,

    1. “a very shoddy piece of work” (Barbara Emerson on Hochschild’s book) in Stephan Bates, “The hidden holocaust”, The Guardian, 13 May 1999 https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/may/13/features11.g22
    2. Adelin Remy, “There Was No Genocide In The Congo”, The Wall Street Journal, Opinion, April 20, 2004
    3. Jean-Jacques Droesbeke & Catherine Vermandele, Histoire(s) des données(s) numérique(s), EDP Sciences, 2018 : “ Et comme le dit si gentiment Stengers, en 2007 : « discrètement, sans un mot d’avertissement, le traducteur rectifie le calcul de Stanley pour aboutir ainsi à une population de 27.694.000 habitants, ce dernier chiffre devenant dès lors la référence dans les pays de langue française… L’histoire aurait pu rester anecdotique si en 1999 n’avait paru un best-seller d’Adam Hochschild dont le titre est évocateur : Les fantômes du roi Léopold II. Un holocauste oublié… L’effet aurait été moins provocateur si la différence entre population de 1885 et population au début du XXe siècle n’avait pas été basée sur l’estimation initiale de Stanley ! Il faut reconnaître que la disparition de près de quinze millions d’habitants due à une erreur de multiplication, ce n’est pas si fréquent ! “
    4. Hochschild has said that his intention was to tell the story in “a way that brings characters alive, that brings out the moral dimension, that lays bare a great crime and a great crusade”, “King Leopold’s Ghost”, Wikipedia

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