Colston’s statue: we should learn from Germany how to confront our history

By Alexander Cohen

The toppling of any statue is a crucial socio-political act of ideological revolution.  It is not just bronze that falls to the ground but the philosophy that it represented, torn down from its pedestal and run into the ground.

Black Lives Matter protestors tore down the Edward Colston statue in Bristol as part of international protests expressing anger at the death of George Floyd in America as well as the racism that still plagues western society. It is a truly symbolic moment; much of Bristol’s history is intertwined with the slave trade and most of its architecture built with wealth from the industry. Bristol was the UK’s main slave port with ships from the harbour transporting an estimation of 3.4 million slaves from Africa. Colston himself was a slave trader whose wealth derived from the transportation of slaves to America in the early 18th century. Needless to say, Colston was a racist who profited off the buying, selling and exploitation of black lives.

The toppling of any statue is a crucial socio-political act of ideological revolution

Footage of the statues collapse is as exhilarating to watch as it is historic; ropes claw around the top of the statue are tense, pulling hard the thing until the figure spins and crashes into the ground with a satisfying thud. The crowds then engulf the collapsed statue jumping up and down on it whilst waving BLM banners all whilst screaming in euphoria. It is eerily similar the collapse of the Saddam Hussein statue in 2003. A crowd of jeering onlookers brandishing flags. It is an iconic moment marking the leader’s defeat in a material and metaphysical sense: symbolic of the US’s war on terror, western imperialism and so on.

The toppling of Colston will one day be regard in the same light: a manifestation of the international unity of communities standing shoulder to shoulder to fight systematic racism, symbolic of the paradigm shift away from White Anglo-Saxon hegemonic culture, hopefully towards a more egalitarian future for all people.

But this does not mean we ought to erase the aesthetic manifestations of the history that brought us to where we are today. To fall prey to ethical masturbation, “well done us for fighting racism!” undermines the achievement of Black Lives Matter movement because it too brashly ignores the UK’s terrible history: Bristol, and most of this country, is built on imperialism that spread terror and hate across the world.

Footage of the statues collapse is as exhilarating to watch as it is historic

But how do we confront this country’s past? The answer is simple: look to Germany. As a nation, Germany has confronted its tormented history head on with countless memorials, statues and museums dedicated to the victims of Nazism. The most haunting example of this is not something deliberately made to commemorate the horrors, not an ornate statue or modernist monument, but rather an abandoned rally ground in Nuremberg. The grandstand where Hitler once addresses thousands by torchlight stands totally naked in the heart of Nuremberg. Dirt and graffiti stains what was once the centrepiece of Nazi propaganda films. The ideological heart of the Nazi party has been reduced to a ruin and will stand as a shameful reminder to the darkest moments of human history. I was lucky enough to visit the memorial a few years ago. The complete irony of standing where Hitler stood marks to espouse hate marks a total victory over his ideology: I, a Jew, am alive. They failed to eradicate me. They lost.

The UK can learn a lot.

The nation was once proud enough of people like Colston, that they erected statues and named streets after him. Instead or erasing the remnants of the past, we ought to leave them as testaments to this country’s violent history. Let Colson’s statue stand to remind us how for so many years, slavery not existed, but was celebrated. Eradicating the statue completely blinds us to this crucial detail. But it ought not to be maintained; let it rot like the Nazi rally ground, so that it becomes a testament to the rejection of the failed ideology for which it stands for. We should not let the crimes that this country condoned go unpunished or unforgotten. We have a lot to learn.

Photography: Chalkstream via Flickr

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