By Martha Muir
In June, I visited Berlin with some school friends. We toured the Reichstag, visited Checkpoint Charlie and experienced the East’s famous nightlife. We also saw the darker side of the city’s history. We visited the haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, spent hours in the Topography of Terror, and as we walked around the city we read the names of victims on stumbling stone memorials outside the homes where they had lived.
This is why I found Ábel Bede’s article; “Lee must not fall: why statues are a valuable reminder of the past” baffling. He contests that Confederate statues must stay where they are as otherwise “this, in the long run, could make us immune to notice evil in our own times” and that, “with a proper education and approach they could be used to benefit our society.” But the impression I have of Germany after my trip is that it is a nation that acknowledges and educates itself about its past crimes. Crucially, however, it manages to do this having removed swastikas from the walls of buildings, renaming the many ‘Adolf-Hitler-Straßes’ and moving busts of the Führer to museums. The glaring logical leap in his piece was why those statues are a means to achieve his desired outcome. I believe they are in fact highly counterproductive.
Why then are the Confederate statues significant? They are usually placed where large numbers of people will see them, such as public parks, streets and outside important buildings. They are invariably crafted to depict their subject as grand and impressive. These statues were erected after the Jim Crow segregation laws had been established, to signal the supremacy of white people and their narratives over those of African American descent.
It was intended that people would see the figure of Robert E. Lee looming large over them outside legislatures and courthouses and understand that a man who had fought for a racist cause was important enough to be dedicated public space and grandeur. That’s why plaques explaining that he was a bad man aren’t good enough. Most people will never take the time to read them, and the symbolism of him occupying these spaces is a message in itself, especially to the descendants of both the people he brutalised and his sympathisers.
This is particularly important in the context of an America which regularly whitewashes its history to forget the suffering of its black population. The Civil War is often described as being about vague notions of “states’ rights,” and not specifically the right to hold black bodies as property. The popular “Gone with the Wind” image of slavery neglects to depict the displacement, economic exploitation, mass rape and torture of millions of people. Ábel writes that “the views of Robert Lee regarding slavery are still disputed by historians” when a quick Google would have shown that Lee thought that slavery was necessary “for their instruction as a race” and that he was notorious for selling apart members of the same family and savagely beating his slaves.
Thomas Jefferson certainly held racist views, but we honour him for being a Founding Father, not specifically for those racist views. Therefore, I think that publicly removing these statues would send an unambiguous message that we reject the propaganda campaign to legitimise the concerns of slaveholders and give them a special place in US history. One of the most resonant images of the Iraq War was Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled, because it signified that in life or death he was no longer able to intimidate and intrude upon the country he ravaged. I think the same message needs to be sent in the case of Lee.
If Ábel wants to use statues to remember history and the sins of a nation, I suggest putting Lee in a museum and replacing him with Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the first official black regiment to fight the Confederacy, or monuments to victims of slavery and the war, like those in Berlin. This would send a clearer signal about whose struggles and sacrifices we prioritise in public spaces, and refute the assumption that Ábel says he wants to debunk; “that our nation always stood on the right side of history without a question.”
This debate is not just about remembering history but doing so in a way that honours victims and condemns their oppressors. We cannot do that while glorifying white supremacists. Therefore, Lee must fall.
Photograph: Jim via Flickr’