Confederate Monuments in an International Context

My trip to Prague this past summer forced me for the first time to consider the ongoing debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces within an international context. We would do well to remember that other nations have faced and/or are currently dealing with  divisive questions surrounding memorial/commemorative landscapes. Many of these debates reflect divisions with deep historical roots that easily surpass those that can be traced to our own civil war.

This morning I came across a couple of videos from the CRIC Research Project on a friend’s social media page. Here is a description of the project:

Recent conflicts in Europe, as well as abroad, have brought the deliberate destruction of the heritage of others, as a means of inflicting pain, to the foreground. With this has come the realisation that the processes involved and thus the long-term consequences are poorly understood. Heritage reconstruction is not merely a matter of design and resources – at stake is the re-visioning and reconstruction of people’s identities! This project aims to investigate the ways the destruction and subsequent selective reconstruction of the cultural heritage impact identity formation. The project seeks to illuminate both the empirical and theoretical relationship between cultural heritage, conflict and identity. In particular, it will examine how destruction as well as reconstruction affect notions of belonging and identities at different scales ranging from the individual to the pan-national. Five regional case studies will provide historical depth, variation, and different trajectories, while the shared methodologies and axes of investigation will ensure comparative measures are reached. Collectively the project will aim to answer the following questions:

  1. what conditions and ideologies inspire the destruction of cultural heritage and what is selected for destruction?

  2. what are the consequences at local, national and regional levels of such destruction and the subsequent reconstruction of parts of people’s heritage?

The videos explore specific places that experienced both the destruction of public memorials and other commemorative landscapes and the attempt to re-build around a shared narrative. I was particularly struck by the story of Bosnia, which points to the limits of the construction of a shared heritage can be.

There is a lot we can learn and I highly recommend taking the time to view them. I suspect that they will make great teaching tools as well. Thanks to Noel Harrison for bringing this project to my attention.

19 comments add yours

  1. Who cares what anyone from Prague thinks about the Confederacy? I doubt they can pull themselves away from their pilsners to give a damn.
    We are too worried about how we, and our history, are viewed in a world-wide context.

    • Who cares what anyone from Prague thinks about the Confederacy?

      You apparently didn’t read the post. It’s not about what the Czech people think, but about how their own experience with public memorials shaped my own thinking about this current debate.

  2. …have brought the deliberate destruction of the heritage of others, as a means of inflicting pain, to the foreground.

    What an excellent sentence. One cannot help but wonder how much this sentiment plays in our own ongoing debate regarding late 19th-century, early 20th-century Confederate monuments and statuary.
    One of the best lines I’ve read in this debate is where someone wrote that erecting monuments and memorials of any type says more about the values and beliefs of those doing the erecting than about the monuments’ subjects. That’s certainly true when we take them down as well.
    Like you (I think), I would prefer that this century-old Confederate iconography stay as is, if for no other reason than for opportunities to teach about the past. But I also agree that the decisions should be left to local communities.
    That said, taking them down offers little more than “a feel good moment,” in my humble opinion. The act does nothing to address the myriad 21st-century challenges that many of these communities face. I would hate to think that by taking down these historic monuments, those seeking their removal also see an opportunity to “poke in a finger in the eye” of those they’ve deemed historically “oppressive.”

    • Like you (I think), I would prefer that this century-old Confederate iconography stay as is, if for no other reason than for opportunities to teach about the past.

      I believe that public commemorative sites are dynamic and constantly in flux. Yes, I do value these sites for the opportunities they offer teachers, but that is not why they were initially created and among the many arguments that can be heard I am not sure how high it ranks. I am open to any number of options depending on the needs of individual communities. My concern is that we tend to often to think about these sites in terms of binaries: stay or remove. There are so many interesting interpretive opportunities that can be embraced and which were featured in some of the videos linked to in this post.

    • “Like you (I think), I would prefer that this century-old Confederate iconography stay as is, if for no other reason than for opportunities to teach about the past. But I also agree that the decisions should be left to local communities.
      That said, taking them down offers little more than “a feel good moment,” in my humble opinion. The act does nothing to address the myriad 21st-century challenges that many of these communities face. I would hate to think that by taking down these historic monuments, those seeking their removal also see an opportunity to “poke in a finger in the eye” of those they’ve deemed historically “oppressive.””

      I agree.

      • That said, taking them down offers little more than “a feel good moment,” in my humble opinion.

        I think it is important that you share this as your opinion, which tells us nothing about those people and organizations who have taken a position for removal.

        The act does nothing to address the myriad 21st-century challenges that many of these communities face.

        How do you know that for the people involved that it doesn’t fit into broader community concerns?

        • “I think it is important that you share this as your opinion, which tells us nothing about those people and organizations who have taken a position for removal.”

          I was agreeing with Mr. Taylor’s comments, actually.

          But to throw my two cents in regarding my own home state of South Carolina, I was in Columbia this weekend and took the time to go over to the statehouse and walk around the grounds to see the various monuments there. And it struck me that what we have there is this building that’s clearly constructed in a much older style than the more modern office buildings all around it, and it’s surrounded by monuments from the history of our state. There’s the recently added African-American history memorial. There is the well-known Confederate soldier’s memorial. There’s a monument to former governor and long time senator Strom Thurmond. There’s a monument to the South Carolina women of the Confederacy. There’s a Mexican War dead memorial. And there are many others. In short, the building and grounds are an outdoor museum of sorts covering the history of our state. Context matters, it seems to me, as does educational value.

          With that in mind, I’m curious to see the videos you linked to in your post, and I feel better able to think about the issues involved, at least as it relates to my state. It looked like there were a number of them, so it’ll take me some time to watch them all. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Haven’t looked at these videos yet, but will. I read a couple of items over the break that considers the American case in light of the “historian’s debate” in 1980s/1990s Germany. W. James Booth’s “Communities of Memory: On Identity, Memory, and Debt,” The American Political Science Review 93, No. 2 (June 1999) is only implicitly about America, but considers the “ethics of intergenerational identity and accountability.” It is very useful. I have since picked up his book Communities of Memory: On Witness, Identity, and Justice, but have not read it yet. More explicit is Thomas McCarthy’s article “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung in the USA: On the Politics of the Memory of Slavery,” Political Theory, Vol. 30, No. 5 (Oct. 2002), wherein he considers the process of postwar Germany’s self-reckoning and considers the need to apply those lessons to the US and it’s history of slavery. (Tzvetan Todorov’s Hope and Memory was interesting, but less helpful than expected.)

    These things reside in the realm of morals and ethics and therefore do not address “interesting interpretive opportunities” that you find in these videos, but in a larger sense…yes, we should be better engaged in the dialog that Europe has been having for generations. I believe there is a public history phd candidate at Middle Tennessee (whose name slips my mind) who is working on this.

  4. Kevin,

    In the 1970s I had a friend who defected from Hungary. He, in turn, had two friends–a married couple–who defected from Russia. The Russian man was Jewish. My Hungarian friend cautioned his American colleagues about their interpretation of events in Eastern Europe, because at that time, it was customary to idealize Eastern European countries due to Soviet oppression. What this man found troubling was that we, Americans, seemed to forget that some Hungarians helped the Nazis “throw the Jews into the river”, during World War II, as he put it. This man loved his country–loved it enough not to replace a false narrative with another false narrative. He witnessed Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest. He knew what that meant. He also knew about rivers that ran red with blood because of the actions of some of his fellow countrymen.

    I think that what we need in our country now more than ever is a National Museum of Slavery in which the entire history of slavery is told. As it is, we have competing narratives in which each group attempts to cast the other in a negative light and shift blame. Slavery was a worldwide crime: Africans were involved; Europeans were involved; and Americans were involved, North and South. It is heartening to see that the Episcopal Church is stepping up to the plate and helping to lead an attempt at reconciliation by acknowledging Rhode Island’s extensive involvement in the slave trade. (We can only hope that the same will happen in the South.) When some African American men and women claim that the US economy was built upon the backs of slaves, they are not far from wrong. Only the most recalcitrant neo Confederate does not understand this when it comes to the South. But how many people believe this about the North? And then there is the thorny question about westward expansion–what that meant after slavery was ended and the reunited nation cleared the way for that expansion, removing all obstacles, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Navajo, and other “tribes”. Are we going to tell that story, too? On a large scale as part of our projected “usable” past and identity? How about the story of Reconstruction? Hopefully. Even if those stories are not marketable “commodities”. Maybe we should just strive to tell the truth this time as we construct our new national narrative. That would be a wonderful legacy to leave for future generations.

      • Meanwhile,what is being done to assist a group that has an overwhelming number of children born out of wedlock? What is being done to raise literacy rates among this group? What is being done to promote our country’s current greatest natural resource, education, among this group? (I would suggest an emphasis on personal responsibility, reading with your children, and putting a high emphasis on education in the home but what do I know?) Let’s bury our heads in a PC, aid-filled, oh-it’s-not-your-fault, world of instant gratification. Oh, and build a Museum.

          • … especially in the south.

            Look up the Kaiser Family Foundation study of infant mortality rates; give you one guess what the worst five have in common.

        • Patrick,

          Museums do that. Museums are centers of civic engagement, opportunities for family and community development, incredible institutions of learning, and, with increasing importance, sites of cross cultural understanding and dialog that serve to break down the type of tired stereotypes that you are trafficking in here.

            • No, I don’t expect a response, or at least one that is constructive.

              I would still extend a hand to him and suggest that he should visit the NMAAHC and see if it is what he fears. A preview exhibit is up at the National Museum of American History and I think he’d be pleasantly surprised by its, um, Whighish tone.

              Even better, and in light of his acute social conscience, he should volunteer at his local museum to help develop programs that meet actual needs of his specific community, whether it be child care, literacy, public health, etc.

              But, yeah, I don’t expect a response.

              • Even better, and in light of his acute social conscience, he should volunteer at his local museum to help develop programs that meet actual needs of his specific community, whether it be child care, literacy, public health, etc.

                Excellent advice.

      • Yes, Kevin, I was aware of this museum. I have read different opinions about whether or not it will get the job done. I hope it does. Because we need it.

        I toured a slave ship that was salvaged by an African American team of divers years ago. There was a manacle small enough for a five or six year old child. That brings the point home without a word being said or written.

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