Dispute over colonial monuments

In the context of anti-racism protests in the US and Europe, demonstrators are also targeting monuments. Statues of Christopher Columbus have been overturned in the US, and in the city of Bristol in the UK the statue of a slave trader was thrown into the harbour. What does our attitude to the past mean for the present and future?

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thejournal.ie (IE) /

The British always look on the bright side of Britannia

The school system is to blame for the fact that a sizeable section of the British population still secretly believes that the British Empire was a good thing, thejournal.ie laments:

“The average UK student leaves school knowing a bit about World War Two and Henry the 8th's love life, but little else. When it comes to the Empire, positives are accentuated and negatives are skirted over. Perhaps it is the ability of the English psyche to look on the bright side of things that stifles meaningful reflection. Sure, millions of Indians died of famine under British rule, but weren't they given railroads? Certainly, Cromwell slaughtered the Irish, but he also ended the absolute power of the monarchy.”

NV (UA) /

Left is undermining anti-racist values

Radical leftists are discrediting the Black Lives Matter movement, historian Roman Lechnjuk laments in NV:

“Certain aspects of the current protests are worrying. First of all, there is the ideologically-based vandalism against monuments to historical figures. ... The driving force behind the process is left-wing ('antifa') activists who dream of an ideal society with social equality and justice. Often these people have little in common with most of the other protesters and their ideas. However, the majority of demonstrators don't seem to take a negative view of them. This is casting a shadow over the entire Black Lives Matter movement and could undermine their original ideas of justice.”

Haravgi (CY) /

The truth always prevails

The left-wing daily Haravgi has no understanding for the arguments of critics of the protests:

“They accuse the demonstrators of vandalism because many right-wing and conservative newspapers are calling on governments not to give in to the anger of the 'mobs'. But history is relentless, as time passes it becomes 'thirsty' for the truth. Clearly most of the great powers relied on the stolen wealth that they brutally took from the states they plundered as colonialists. The deconstruction of the statues, which symbolise violence, colonialism, racism and fascism, restores historical truth.”

Malta Today (MT) /

Preserve the artworks of the past

In Malta there are now calls for a statue of Britain's Queen Victoria in Valetta which was erected in 1819 to be torn down. Columnist Raphael Vassallo warns against this in Malta Today:

“Whatever you make of its historical significance, this is very clearly a sculpture made at a time when a lot of importance was given to such purely artistic details, just for their own sake. Can the same really be said for anything we might erect in its place today (regardless, again, of the cultural significance of having a Maltese subject for a commemorative statue on the same spot)? ... For even if it was intended to glorify the British Empire - and undeniably to cow (ahem) the unruly natives of Malta into submission - well, just look at it today.”

El País (ES) /

Provide context rather than destroy

The indignation about monuments from other eras can be focused in a proper way, El País points out:

“The past, which is just as complicated as the present and for which there can be no final condemnation or acquittal, is also conserved in these statues, monuments, buildings ... The best solution is not to destroy the traces of the past, but to take a different approach, such as putting them on display in museums, or using plaques to explain the context of what really happened in order to channel the deep indignation that tends to emerge when the injustices of the present are too reminiscent of certain horrors of the past.”

Le Soir (BE) /

Opportunity for democratic renewal

Taking down monuments to historically controversial figures helps to update our democracies, writes economist Thierry Amougou in Le Soir:

“Now that the diversity of the eras, memories and subjectivities that make up the public space has been revealed, a just and democratic public space could be an instrument for consolidating democracy, which should be redefined as a dynamic and critical relationship between institutions that value different experiences and various subjectivities equally. ... The history of the victors, which has very often shaped the public space, is now being confronted with the question of what is a just and democratic public space in the cosmopolitan societies of the 21st century. ”

Webcafé (BG) /

A highly complex historical heritage

Webcafé sees differences between the remembrance culture in the US and those in Europe:

“Unlike Bulgaria, where nationality and historical memory are closely related to Bulgarian ethnicity, in the United States ethnicity - and even nationality - have little to do with the country's historical heritage. The reason for this is that the American nation is more of a cultural phenomenon based on shared values than the result of an ethnopolitical process, as in Europe. In other words, while in our history we can clearly distinguish Bulgarians from Ottomans, in the history of the United States all of the players - colonisers, slaves and indigenous peoples - have an equal share in the country's historical heritage.”

Expresso (PT) /

This is not about erasing history

Expresso misses certain insights in the debate:

“There are statues that really shouldn't remain standing. But to say this is not to argue that history should be erased. Weren't hundreds of statues of Lenin destroyed in the 1990s? Didn't we watch as the statue of Saddam was toppled in Baghdad? Did anyone say then that history was being erased? Would a decent German accept even a single statue of Hitler being left in place? ... Knocking down statues is the same as erecting them: you position yourself in relation to history. ... The first mistake in this debate is to believe that statues tell us history. Statues define how history was told by the powerful people who were able to erect them at a given point in time.”

Mérce (HU) /

Hero cult and culture of remembrance don't mix

Writing in Mérce, author Iván Merker questions the whole practice of casting historical figures as heroes:

“These hero-creating works leave no room for a multidimensional view of historical figures. In my opinion, that alone can be problematic - even more so if it whitewashes the racism of the figure depicted. ... Racism and anti-Semitism are just as much a part of the West's cultural heritage as the Enlightenment or the institutions of liberal democracy. That is our fate and we must face up to it. It's time the politics of remembrance also took account of that fact.”

El Periódico de Catalunya (ES) /

Not a trivial debate

Columnist Emma Riverola explains in El Periódico de Catalunya what she believes could bring progress in the current discussion:

“Monuments - or films like Gone with the Wind - are made of more than just the material they consist of. The gaze of the observer endows them with this or that meaning. A black woman who is descended from slaves will see the film in a very different way to how I see it. A Native American woman walking across La Rambla [the street where the Columbus monument stands in Barcelona] will feel an old pain pass through her skin, and that of her mother, and of her mother's mother. I don't believe the statue of Columbus should be torn down, but the debate is more than just a capricious, unworldly discussion. It would be enough if we were able to see the pain that some cherished symbols conceal. Then perhaps we would also feel the racism that still persists.”

La Stampa (IT) /

Worthless junk

The best thing to do with the statues is have them melted down, columnist Gianni Riotta comments in La Stampa:

“The statues of the heroes of the Confederate States that were attacked by anti-racist protesters cost 450 dollars. They were mass produced from zinc by Monumental Bronze Co., which is based in the northern states, in Connecticut . ... These statues were erected 80 years after the Civil War of 1861-1865, not to commemorate General Lee's exploits, but to terrorise the blacks while denying them the vote. Another detail that amateurs who are now posing as experts ignore is their absolute lack of artistic value. Apart from the initials on the belt buckle - US for United States and CS for the Confederates - the statues are all the same.”

Delo (SI) /

There is no delete key for history

The demolition of monuments does not change anything, Delo comments:

“The puritanical scandalisation and demonisation of everyone and everything is gradually crossing the boundaries of good taste, and above all it is completely pointless. As with computers, history remains recorded forever in all its complexity even if you press the delete key. Somewhere in the heart of the hard disk, on a server in an unknown place, in the cloud, and above all in our memory and subconscious, it remains engrained.”

NRC Handelsblad (NL) /

Don't let Trump capitalise on this

The fact that the protests now target the monuments of other historical figures such as Christopher Columbus is stupid and dangerous, warns US expert Frans Verhagen in NRC Handelsblad:

“Many monuments were deliberately erected to honour white superiority. At the time, racial segregation was enforced in the South. ... But the spread of the protest [to encompass other statues] gives head racist Trump the opportunity to expand his following. He can point to the anti-American attitude of the demonstrators, the vandalism and thus conceal the racist element of his position. ... It would be wiser to let Columbus stand and quickly remove Jefferson Davies.”

Új Szó (SK) /

A violent ideology

Commenting in the daily paper Új Szó, journalist Pál Szombathy says the toppling of monuments reminds him of communism:

“In this way of thinking Churchill, who was the first to recognise the danger posed by Hitler's madness, is described as an old racist because from today's perspective he said a lot of unacceptable nonsense about supposedly inferior peoples. Doesn't this zeal and ideology remind us of the rise of communism? ... The new internationalist ideology is impatient, impertinent and violent. ... It sees the historical prosperity of the West exclusively as the work of racist, misogynist white men. ... There is no room for a counter-opinion. ... Such an attitude has led to bloody dictatorships throughout history.”

The Irish Times (IE) /

We need more, not fewer statues

Northern Ireland, with its conflict-laden past, shows us how to deal with the problem of historical monuments, The Irish Times explains:

“A consensus has emerged that the best approach to difficult statuary is addition rather than subtraction. Belfast City Council has a draft agreement to supplement the unionist grandees set in stone around City Hall with nationalists and republicans. Similar 'equality audits' have been performed elsewhere. While balance may seem trite, politically and artistically, it is an improvement on most of the anodyne public sculpture that has marked the peace process.”

Aktuality.sk (SK) /

Like in the Wild West

This is no longer a legitimate fight for justice, complains Aktuality.sk:

“In many respects the protests look like a 'cultural revolution'. The icons of Europe and America are falling from their pedestals because they make minorities angry. Several progressive leaders in Europe and the United States are competing with each other with populist promises to change street names, remove 'politically incorrect' symbols and rewrite history. A number of US governors have promised to restrict the powers of police authorities or abolish them. ... This is anarchy and a return to the days of the Wild West, when men with guns but no sheriff's star had the last word.”

newsru.com (RU) /

Symbols as lightning rods

Political scientist Sergei Medvedev shows understanding for the toppling of certain monuments in a Facebook post taken over from newsru.com:

“I do not support the demolition of monuments, and it hurts to watch as they fall. But I understand what's behind it. Monuments are just iron and stone laden with pathos and symbolism. If they can serve as a lightning rod for pent up feelings of injustice, then this is also part of their mission: to inspire noble sentiments and channel base ones. It's better for monuments to fall than for people to die.”

The Daily Telegraph (GB) /

Don't judge by today's standards

The anti-racism movement should not be taken to extremes, historian Gill Evans warns in The Daily Telegraph:

“We cannot simply erase our uncomfortable past. It must be a part of our future, too. ... Where is all this heading? A recent campaign to 'take racist Churchill off our currency' shows the shape of things to come if we do not make the case that it is important to learn from our history rather than simply erase it. It is deeply unfair to judge the people of the past by the standards of the present. Nobody would pass such a test - not even today's protesters, some of whose morals will surely seem just as evil to future generations as slavery does to us.”

La Libre Belgique (BE) /

Only by confronting the past can we move forward

Writing in La Libre Belgique, journalist Marco Gombacci compares the toppling of statues with the destruction of ancient monuments by the IS fighters in Syria and Iraq:

“Revising history can be a dangerous undertaking. ... To distinguish ourselves from the barbarians of the Islamic State, whose primary goal was to destroy all historical buildings so as to initiate a new propaganda narrative, we must remember how important it is not to erase history and all it represents, but to preserve it and study it in depth. This is the only way to face our past without ideological or obscurantist debates.”

The Times (GB) /

Cultural censorship by mobs is unacceptable

The Times is outraged that the police did nothing to stop the angry mob and that many prominent figures showed understanding for what happened:

“Colston had a dreadful history as a slaver. But vandalism and thuggery are inexcusable, criminal and should be policed, not justified. The destruction of the Colston statue is just the latest in the 'Rhodes must fall' campaign to tear down the statues of anyone deemed to represent white racism. Instead of standing up to this bullying, university and cultural authorities mostly went along with this censorship of cultural history. This was in turn the logical outcome of the decades-long, willed destruction of education as a system that transmits a culture down through the generations.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

Slave trader now where he belongs

The Tagesspiegel supports the campaign:

“Most Brits have only just found out who Colston is. After all, the slave trade hardly plays a role in Britain's self-image - and that's only now starting to change. Rather, yesterday's slave traders are perceived as local heroes and benefactors. ... In this respect the demolition of the Colston statue could bring about a long overdue turning point in Britain's culture of remembrance. Because in actual fact the monument didn't stand for remembrance, but for forgetting. It stood for the silence and relativisation of crimes against humanity. Now it's in Bristol Harbour. Just where it belongs.”

De Morgen (BE) /

Statues fall faster than prejudice

Writing in De Morgen, English professor Lieven Buysse shows understanding for the toppling of the statue but warns that protesters should not get their hopes up:

“Such actions act as a wake-up call for the wider population, warning them not to take too one-sided a view of symbols. But if you view these actions as an attack on the (predominantly white) British identity, you only reaffirm the prejudices you are fighting. Symbols must be questioned, but we have to believe that in the long term the power of persuasion will achieve more than brute force. And above all: a struggle over symbols is often an excuse for politicians not to take the real problem - namely racism and socio-economic disadvantage - seriously.”