Shouting ‘Heritage, Not Hate’ in the Streets of Prague

Yesterday my wife and I returned from a ten-day trip to Europe that included stops in Vienna, Prague, and Frankfurt. I love traveling through Europe and having the opportunity to absorb myself in its rich history. This trip was no exception, though I have to admit that I never completely disengaged myself from events surrounding the Confederate flag. I followed the news closely and read a good deal of blog posts and other commentary. The news of the lowering of the flag in Columbia was covered in many European newspapers.

As always my trips overseas provide fresh perspective on my favorite historical subject. Our time in Prague proved to be an eye opening experience on so many levels. The city is overwhelming from its sheer beauty to its rich cultural history. In Germany I can’t help but think and read about WWII. In Prague it was the Soviet occupation, life under communism and the painful transition to democracy by the early 1990s. I was curious as to how the Czech people remember communism in public spaces. In Prague, at least, they don’t.

The monuments have been taken down many of which have been moved to museums like the Museum of Communism, which we visited. It should come as no surprise that our visit left an impression on how I think about the ongoing debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces.  In fact, it was unsettling.

My position on Confederate monuments has always been grounded in my role as an educator and historian. To me they are places that allow students to interpret not just the past, but about how different generations remember the past. Their presence is a statement that the past – even the painful episodes – cannot and ought not to be forgotten by the community. Better to add to the commemorative landscapes of places like Richmond’s Monument Avenue and a host of other places throughout the nation.

But there I was staring at massive statues of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and a slew of minor public officials. All of them had been taken down and were now on display in a museum. I tried to imagine how I might make my case to the Czech people for their continued presence in the city squares, on and inside public buildings and along main avenues. Could I even think about twisting the history into a neat and meaningless slogan such as, “Heritage, Not Hate”?

These were not simply inanimate objects made of cast iron and bronze. They helped to prop up a state committed to an ideology of hate and oppression. Many individuals lost their lives in its name.

Is anyone surprised that the Czech people removed these monument, not in the name of erasing their history but in by filling their public spaces in ways that reflect the decisive change in collective values that came with the fall of communism? Was there ever a serious alternative?

I’ve always looked at this issue from a perspective of detachment, but as I continue to reflect I can feel the ground shifting under my feet. Monuments are never erected as merely an exercise in history. They are intended to legitimize a set of values. When they are on public ground they necessarily represent the views of the state and by default welcome one group of people while turning away others.

Upon landing yesterday I read that city officials in Memphis are still debating whether to remove a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, along with his remains, to a new location. Yesterday was also Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee. I’ve read a number of thoughtful commentaries that make the case for preserving Confederate monuments or that attempt to distinguish between different types of monuments. Perhaps there is a way to distinguish between the Forrest Monument and the hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers that dot public spaces, including some of the most visible ground in front of local courthouses.

Although I still see great value in having Confederate monuments available as a historian and educator in their intended settings, I do not believe that such views necessarily trump those who perceive them, along with the Confederate flag, as part of a lived memory of political oppression.

We can fine tune distinctions concerning how Americans identify with the Confederate flag and Confederate heritage all we want, but it can never overshadow the fact that the success of the very people memorialized in bronze and marble would have resulted in nothing less than a brand new slaveholding republic built on white supremacy. This, for me, must be the starting point in any discussion concerning flags and monuments.

Ultimately, and as I’ve said all along, it is up to the people in each community to debate these issues in public forums and through their elected officials. Many of the people now engaged in these discussions were, at one time, barred from taking part in the political process based on an ideology that these very same monuments were erected to reinforce.

Monuments can do that.

The people of Prague knew that all too well.

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18 comments… add one
  • Ryan A Jul 15, 2015 @ 7:41

    This may sound like an extreme hypothetical, but if we agree that commemoration on public ground should be removed or relocated, how does that work with monuments to Confederate units or states on NPS battlefields? Since they are public and government owned land, should the NPS remove or relocate the monuments to get out of the public eye? This may not be the case for all monuments – in particular, I know the North Carolina memorial and the ground it sits on at Gettysburg is actually owned by the state of North Carolina, who maintain it with it’s own contracted local landscaping service – so they can choose to do what they want with it. I guess my point is, where do we go from here?

    I’ve always been of the same mind as you Kevin, that monuments should stay as teaching tools. Another extreme example could be the Pyramids at Giza or any of the Ancient Egyptian ruins. They were built using slave labor to service an empire that viewed their rulers as gods and yet we continue to visit them to this day. Why not tear them down since they are quite literally, a monument for and built by, the establishment of slavery in Egypt? Of course, there are plenty of reasons they, and the other ancient monuments to slave societies like the Greeks and the Romans, should remain to be visited and interpreted and I think the same is true for Confederate monuments. They tell a specific story and the meaning of the language on those stones cannot be altered or changed to fit someone’s agenda. They say what they say and it’s up to us to place them in the proper historical context, keeping in mind the potential issues. In the same way, could we not acknowledge the often exaggerated language and forms on Union monuments and realize they have an important story to tell, even though those monuments may be stretching the truth a tad?

    There’s also the artistic element to it. A monument or a symbol may be offensive or stand for something amoral, but it’s artistic AND historic value may impart some compelling interest to keep it standing. As such, the Confederate state memorials at Gettysburg are definitely works of art – Virginia, Alabama, and North Carolina in particular are quite striking and beautiful in their own way. There are specific reasons why certain figures are depicted the way that they are – the rank and file figures at the base of the Virginia memorial are depicted as young and robust as a way to portray the rebel army as strong and defiant. Other postwar monuments depict similar figures and scenes. All of that is quite relevant to the historical discussion about why they were erected in the first place. The ridiculous equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson at Manassas is a good example of extreme exaggeration and post-war glorification of southern leaders. Again, a very important story to tell.

    I bristle at the idea of removing said monuments from battlefields for those reasons and I certainly hope they aren’t. Aside from the very practical reasons, I grew up visiting Gettysburg and visiting those spots. Removing such a large monument would be as jarring as removing the Pennsylvania memorial – you can’t do it without fundamentally changing not only the look of the battlefield but also the interpretation of that battle through the years. As is the point of your blog, our collective memory of the Civil War is as important as the event itself. I’m not sure there are better examples of this than being able to maintain an ongoing debate and discussion about these monuments.

  • London John Jul 15, 2015 @ 1:03

    One evening in the 1980s my family and I found ourselves on Monument Avenue in Richmond VA, and we were gobsmacked at the size of the statues, and asked ourselves “how big would they have been if they’d won?”. I now believe that those and similar confederate statues weren’t really put up commemorate the defeated, but to celebrate a victory, namely the defeat of Reconstruction and the re-establishment of white supremacy.
    I can see a problem for historians: while I can believe what I like about these statues, if the motive for erecting them was as I believe, it might have been so obvious to the southern authorities who commissioned them and to the white public that there was no need to ever spell t out, so leaving no record. What do you do in those circumstances?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 15, 2015 @ 1:14

      I can see a problem for historians: while I can believe what I like about these statues, if the motive for erecting them was as I believe, it might have been so obvious to the southern authorities who commissioned them and to the white public that there was no need to ever spell t out, so leaving no record. What do you do in those circumstances?

      That’s not a problem for many Confederate monuments. Remember that dedication ceremonies were covered extensively by local newspapers and they often included programs with speeches. The organizations responsible for fundraising also kept records.

  • JL Jul 14, 2015 @ 14:36

    One major difference I can see between the South and Prague is that Lenin, Marx, and Stalin weren’t local figures, and even the statues of local figures probably weren’t installed with input from citizens. Many (certainly not all) Confederate monuments commemorate individuals or troops who were part of the surrounding community and were installed in their or their children’s lifetime through private donations as well as public funds. Probably even at the time of installation not all local citizens supported these monuments, but I imagine a majority did. It’s time to add appropriate memorials supported by those groups not represented by the existing ones rather than remove the ones that are there. Since I’m interested in the Civil War, I’d like to see more monuments from that era, not less. How about monuments to USCT regiments with former slaves from the area right next to existing Confederate monuments where applicable? That would certainly instigate some discussions and education.

    • Rosieo Jul 14, 2015 @ 23:46

      I am thinking along these same lines regarding imposition of type of government by nonlocals on people who are not of the imposers same ethnic heritage…
      I am of 100 percent descent from an eastern European country (3rd generation US) and growing up my parents and grandparents strongly identified with their heritage. I can easily imagine it was not hard for people where communism was imposed from the outside to banish its trappings.

      I am also thinking that the way I phrased my question in post above might sound politically incorrect because I wondered if ethnic background affected the decision to move communist statues to museums. From USA point of view, it probably does read kinda racist. From point of view of person such as myself who grew up in tight community of European immigrants to USA, not so much. ….. And here we perhaps have example of area of misunderstanding/miscommunication among people in our wonderfully diverse USA.

      I like the idea of more “local” monuments. That may be the only way to further along understanding between and among USA citizens.

  • Brad Jul 14, 2015 @ 10:53

    I think this country is a rather unique case where the losers won the peace and thus set the agenda. That did not happen in Europe. It would have been hard to imagine Franco permitting monuments to the Spanish Republic being allowed to remain, for example.

    Had we exiled or executed the Confederate leaders after the War, I’m not sure we’d be having this discussion. European politics are a bit more cutthroat.

    • Kristoffer Jul 14, 2015 @ 13:11

      Prague is in Czech Republic, Czech Republic is in Europe. PicardFaceplam.jpg
      Losers writing the history is all too common, and they aren’t interested in truth. Look up Albert Speer’s covering up his knowledge of the Holocaust being declared at one of the Posen speeches.

  • Jan Dresler, Denmark Jul 14, 2015 @ 7:17

    An European Tour in 10 days ? Last time I was in Vienna, I was there for 10 ten days 🙂 ….and I’m going back to that city for sure.

    Coming from Denmark, cities like, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Barcelona, Dublin and so on is “just around the corner” and often targets for long weeknds there 🙂

    ( )

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2015 @ 7:18

      We may try to hit Stockholm and Copenhagen next year.

      • Jan Dresler Jul 14, 2015 @ 9:47

        Great 🙂 Short Northern nights 🙂 The sun rising at 03:30 a.m. and setting at 10:45 p.m. We are planning for our third trip to North Cape…..where the sun never set’s ….at least in the summertime 🙂

  • Rosieo Jul 14, 2015 @ 6:18

    The South Carolina flag debate crystalized my thinking….. Ever since I began a few years ago to really learn about the Civil War I’ve been thinking that the simple, basic, pure truth is: the Confederacy lost …. and I’ve been thinking that everything — all CSA trapping — all of it– should be in museums or on private property and absolutely NOT on govenrment property. As for Confederate soldiers – when your side loses, it loses. Sorry but tough. It is a hard world. I say No Confederate flags on graves no matter if soldier died before end of war…. And veterans had to pledge loyalty oaths… they went to their graves as USA citizens…. I lose patience though I know it is hard, no matter the situation, to suck up the hard stuff and move on. But we need to move on. The left over Civil War stuff hurts America, i believe.

    What you write, Mr. Levin, about Communist monuments impresses me. Do you think ethnic backgrounds play a role in the decision?

    • jim mathews Jul 14, 2015 @ 10:56

      that the confederate states of america was defeated lessens not their valor. my great-grandfather,a member of hoods texas brigade endured such privation and and misery yet they fought to appomatox and had to be forced to stack arms and furl their banners. the second great american revolution belongs to all southerners wether dixie born or got there as fast as they could.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2015 @ 11:06

        You are certainly free to identify with your great-grandfather in any way you choose.

  • Buck Buchanan Jul 14, 2015 @ 5:52

    As usual, Kevin, you points are spot on.

    Glad you had a such a good time. I always enjoyed my visits to European cities when I was stationed in Germany.

    Still need to get to Prague, Sofia and Warsaw. Back when I lived there, they were on the “other” side.

    Looking forward to further discussions.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2015 @ 6:40

      The big challenge in Prague was the language barrier. My wife, who is from Germany, is fluent in four languages so travel is very easy and it allows for easy communication. This simply didn’t happen in Prague. I have so many questions and my understanding of the relevant history is admittedly shallow.

  • Annette Jackson Jul 14, 2015 @ 4:16

    I am glad you and your wife had such a wonderful trip. Your post has some very good points to consider…I need to take some time for reflection before replying further.

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