I’ve been to Germany.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the first thing I wanted to do when I got there was find some Nazi Museum. I’m a history buff and I’m especially keen on European history, but I didn’t want to see anything related to the Holy Roman Empire or Charlemagne or Martin Luther or anything else in German history. For me, German history = Nazis.
I know its probably unfair to the good people of Germany, but there it is.
However, in December 2014, when I arrived in Cologne – Germany’s fourth largest city and the only place in Germany that never supported the Nazi Party (a fact that they are quite proud of) – I found no statues of Hitler erected during the Third Reich or no Nazi regalia on medieval gates. Nothing that the Nazis might have put up during their twelve years in power to instigate or intimidate the opposition in Cologne, that the people of Germany kept in place after they fell from power as a reminder of what was.
Oh they existed. During the Third Reich, the Nazis built statues and monuments and littered Cologne with them, as a reminder to the people who was in charge. But when Hitler fell, the citizens of Cologne tour down the statues and burned Nazi flags and propaganda in the streets. (Cut to 6:13 and 8:30 in the video below to see it happen)
Why did they hate their history so much? Obviously, because the citizens of Cologne did this no one remembers the Nazis now. Right? Because that’s what we’re told will happen if we keep tearing down Confederate statues.
They do remember, and they don’t need status to do it. Because statues and monuments are not how we *remember* history, it is how we *CELEBRATE* it. The statues of Confederate leaders and generals did not go up in town squares in the South so that Southerns can look at them and lament about how wrong they were. They were not put off as a reminder that the values the Confederacy fought for were inhumane and wrong. They put the up as a reminder to others, especially blacks, that even though they technically lost the war, they still believed in the cause and would, when the time is right, take up the fight again. They are a reminder to blacks that they could be enslaved again, and a reminder to Northerners – this isn’t over.
Taking down the statues now, and removing their names from honorable places, would be America finally saying…it’s over. It’s the last battle of the Civil War, fought more than 150 years too late.
So with the statues down, how do we remember our history? We get rid of the monuments and the statues and the honors and regulate the history to museums, and we tell the truth about who or what they are or were. Why don’t we just put a plaque in front of the state explaining it? Well that was a compromise people were open to decades ago, but the time for compromise has passed. Imagine generations from now, someone walking up to a statue of General Robert E. Lee and a plaque that says “General Lee fought on the side of slavers to defend the institution.” Those future generations are going to ask themselves – if he did such a terrible thing, why is there a statue of him here? And they’d be right.
But the other question to this…how far do we go with this? Confederate generals and leaders are easy, but does it include Columbus, Washington, Jefferson? Are all our Founding Fathers tainted?
Well, yes, and that’s the problem. Our country was founded on principals it never successfully followed through on. Human beings are, by nature, flawed. It is possible to celebrate someone who did good (Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence) but you have to be honest about the bad (slavery). This isn’t what we did when we built monuments and statues – we built them to celebrate these men, without any recognition of the things they did that weren’t so good, and often did so in arrogant ways. Take Mount Rushmore, build on the Six Grandfathers, a sacred mountain to the Lakota tribe. We stole the land from them and then built a monument to our leaders (after reneging on a promise to build a monument to theirs.) I’ve never seen Mount Rushmore, but I’m told its beautiful and majestic and honors some flawed men who laid the foundations for great things. But it was built out of arrogance. How else can you describe a situation where land was literally stolen and a monument to the thieves heroes is built on it?
It’s the last battle of the Civil War, fought more than 150 years too late.
But, yes, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton; they are our founders. There has to be a way to recognize our past, but also be honest about it. We should also focus on more contemporary leaders, who aren’t tainted by sins of the past that were considered normal at the time (i.e. slavery).
This is also what makes Christopher Columbus complicated. He really has no tangible connection to the United States and his entire reason for being celebrated is that he pioneered the root cause of white supremacy in America; colonialism. Was his exploring “good?” Was anything he did truly “good?” He never really “discovered America.” You can make an argument that he helped develop modern navigation and trade, but he’s hardly the only one, or even the best one. Columbus enriched European monarchs and a corrupt Church at the expense of not only the Taino and Caribe and other Native people in the Western Hemisphere and the Muslims and Jews who were expelled from Spain; but also the poor Europeans whose living conditions never changed simply because they were born poor. Some of them are the same Europeans who are the ancestors to the Americans who are idolizing Columbus today. Being the first European to explore the Americas (he wasn’t even that) isn’t really much to celebrate when you think of what happened for centuries later.
Back to Germany. How does the country that forced upon the world the greatest atrocities in the past several centuries remember the Nazis? By remembering the Germans who suffered under them. On the sidewalks of Cologne, you will find little gold squares in front of buildings. These gold squares each bear the name of a Jewish person who died in the Holocaust and are placed on the sidewalk in front of where they lived.
While walking through Cologne with my cousins, my younger cousin stopped in her tracks and gasped. Looking down she spotted 12 gold squares – an entire family lost in the genocide. We also visited the former Nazi jail, kept almost intact with prisoner graffiti in the cells. All around were photos and even some pieces of monuments and Nazi insigne that was once in public places around Cologne.
We could honor the Civil War with memorials and monuments to Union leaders and freed slaves. We should honor Southern culture with some of the great artists and thinkers who cam from the region – Helen Keller, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, MLK
Times change, people change, what society considers acceptable changes. Taking down monuments and statues and renaming bases is not erasing history, it is recognizing it as something to remember, but not honor.
And now the tea: The problem is, for many people, the argument “we can’t erase history” is pure gaslighting. They want to statues to say up because WANT to honor it. They are proud of it. They support it. This entire conversation avoids that reality. Those who protect Confederate monuments and honors do so because they actually support the cause and believe in and perhaps hope the statues and monuments will inspire a future generation to reclaim that back, and, to paraphase a bad campaign slogan, make the country great again.