After World War I, statues from the vanished Hapsburg empire were quickly taken down and replaced by Czechoslovakia's new, democratic heroes, like Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, its first president. After World War II, Communists erased Masaryk from public ...and more »
Take the Czech Republic, for instance.
After World War I, statues from the vanished Hapsburg empire were quickly taken down and replaced by Czechoslovakia’s new, democratic heroes, like Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, its first president. After , Communists erased Masaryk from public tributes, but he was put back in place after that system collapsed. One statue of Masaryk in the small town of Holesov was taken away and re-erected five times, said Zdenek Lukes, a historian and architect in Prague.
The statue of Jozef Tiso in Cakajovce, Slovakia. Monuments to Tiso, a wartime leader, are shunned in most of the country. Credit Akos Stiller for The New York TimesMr. Lukes opposes the removal of such statues, but he said that in some cases a little historical context must be added. “I like the solution they used in the town of Litomysl,” Mr. Lukes said. “Instead of removing a statue of the Communist minister of culture, they placed a plaque there explaining who he was and what he did.”
Slovakia, which broke away after the fall of communism, also reveres Masaryk, but has built its own stable of national heroes, with the biggest disputes over the country’s wartime leader, Jozef Tiso, who was hanged for collaborating with the Nazis. Though monuments to Tiso are still shunned in most of the country, the small village of Cakajovce has erected its own Pantheon of Slovak Historical Figures, with Tiso at the center.
The recent bloody history of Eastern Europe, where occupation by Nazis and then Soviets scrambled political allegiances, has made the region especially susceptible to these waves of political upheaval. But such disputes are not confined to the East.
The spectacular tomb of Spain’s former fascist ruler, Gen. Francisco Franco, at Valle de los Caidos is still a pilgrimage destination for conservative Spaniards, and has survived several efforts to remove it.
In Italy, the right-wing mayor of Brescia tried in 2013 to restore a monumental statue of a muscular youth from 1932, called “Fascist Era” — but nicknamed Bigio by residents — to its perch in the center of town.
The statue, placed in storage after the war, should be seen as a work of art, the mayor argued, bled of its fascist baggage. Many disagreed, vehemently. He lost the next election, and his successor chose to keep Bigio in storage, where he remains.
In Germany, Nazi images and symbols were scrubbed from public spaces immediately after the war, and the display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols is illegal. The site of the bunker where died has been obscured, to deny neo-fascists a rallying point. The Olympic Stadium, where Hitler presided over the 1936 Games, is still in use, though stripped of all Nazi regalia.
The Valley of the Fallen in Madrid, a monument that contains the tomb of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York TimesThe fall of the presented fresh challenges. Statues of Lenin were swiftly removed in the early 1990s, but some sites were converted, including a former prison for the Communist security police that was turned into an informational center teaching about the past.
The goal, Culture Minister Monika Grütters of Germany said, is to “explain everything, without holding back, without an agenda, without seeking to be in the right.”
The extent to which these political symbols from the past still inflame emotions can be seen from a passerby’s reaction in Dresden this month to a drunken American tourist giving a Nazi salute — a solid punch in the face.
Normally, when jarring political changes happen, the statues of the former leaders and heroes are among the first casualties. Iraqis pulled Saddam Hussein from his perch in Firdos Square in 2003, and there are countless shots of Lenin flat on his face after the collapse of the Soviet empire.
To Ivaylo Dichev, a professor of culture anthropology at Sofia University in Bulgaria, the recent scenes from the United States have a clear resonance. “Eastern Europe went through a similar period in the ’90s, when a lot of Communist-era monuments were removed,” he said.
In many cases, countries chose to move Communist-era statues to tourist-oriented sites, like Gruto Parkas in Lithuania and Memento Park outside Budapest.
But that has not halted controversies over public monuments.
In 2007, the removal from the center of Estonia’s capital of a statue of a Soviet soldier, head bent to mourn the deaths of comrades killed fighting the Nazis, resulted in riots by ethnic Russians.
An American soldier watching Iraqis topple a statue Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad in 2003. Credit Goran Tomasevic/ReutersIn Hungary, where Prime Minister has led the country in a nationalist direction, disputes over public monuments have become a regular feature.
A statue dedicated to Soviet heroes in a park near Parliament was painted red several times by activists. And a monument dedicated to “all the victims” of the Nazi occupation of Hungary, in the same park, was widely criticized as an attempt by Mr. Orban’s government to obscure Hungary’s wartime history by ignoring its collaboration with the Nazis in the murder of Hungary’s Jews.
In Bulgaria, the authorities decided this year to remove a huge Soviet-era monument that had been left to molder in Sofia since Communism’s collapse. But in July, pro-Russian protesters took to the streets, and the demolition was temporarily halted.
This was after activists, in 2011, defaced a huge monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia’s main park by painting its heroic figures to look like Superman, Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald. The monument has been a regular target of politically minded vandals ever since. In 2013, someone painted all the figures bright pink, spurring an official complaint from the Russian Embassy and an apology from the Bulgarian government.
But not all disputes over public statuary in Europe are fallout from the Nazi and Soviet years. Continuing political turmoil has produced fresh ones.
The breakup of Yugoslavia in the wars of the 1990s caused many of the countries that emerged — including Croatia and Macedonia — to remove monuments to the former country’s Communist-era leader, .
In Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, where Tito’s image was once ubiquitous, he now presides mainly outside a single elementary school named for him. Instead, fresh disputes over public statuary have flared up.
The main Soviet Army monument in Sofia, Bulgaria, was painted in the colors of Ukraine’s flag in 2014 after pro-European protests in the city. Credit Nikolay Doychinov/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesEager to establish itself as a sovereign nation, Macedonia’s rulers went on a building spree in Skopje, erecting dozens of statues of contemporary political figures, as well as a giant one known as “Warrior,” but looking suspiciously like Alexander the Great — seen as a rebuke to the neighboring Greek province of Macedonia, which complained that Alexander was theirs to honor.
Now, the nationalist leader who went on the building spree, Nikola Gruevski, has been removed from office and his left-wing successors are trying to decide what to do with all the statues of lawmakers and ministers from a former government.
“In this case, we can see how certain symbology can be eruptive and damaging for a democracy when used in political causes,” said Aleksandar Petrov, an architect and author in Skopje.
Of course, such problems have bedeviled Europe since the dawn of civilization as new conquerors erased traces of their predecessors, leaving behind a patchwork of stone survivors from ancient Rome to the Holy Roman Empire whose subjects may not have been exemplars of human rights and modern morality.
“Nobody would even think of removing statues of Napoleon or Roman emperors,” said Mr. Lukes, the Czech historian.
After a certain point, time erases political enmity and the images lose much of their symbolic power. Perhaps, he said, a way forward in America would be to emulate Litomysl’s example and add context to the monument.
“I believe a plaque explaining who he was and what he did would suit General Lee very well,” Mr. Lukes said.
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