Many monuments no longer fit into our political landscape – in the US as well as in Germany. They celebrate the wrong heroes or tell of injustices suffered in order to conceal the suffering inflicted on others. Should they be removed for that reason?

  • Helmut Walser Smith

    Helmut Walser Smith is the Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His most recent work, Germany. A Nation in its Time. Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000 (New York: W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2020), will appear in German this September as Deutschland. Geschichte einer Nation, 1500-2000 (München: C.H. Beck, 2020).

Buil­ding monu­ments to the Confe­deracy of the American Civil War closely followed the rise of segre­ga­tion and presaged the high­water mark of lynching, a graph published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2017 showed. In the after­math of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a member of the Minnea­polis Police Depart­ment in March 2020, the graph resur­faced and helped fueling public anger at these monu­ments. By October 2020, more than a hundred monu­ments had been torn down. But more than 700 still stood.

Why keep them? After all, the southern seces­sion was demons­trably treaso­nous and southern soldiers knew they were fighting to preserve slavery. Moreover, the north won the war, but somehow the south has emerged as the victor in the battle for memory. That was the other story the graph told. Most of the monu­ments to the Confe­deracy were built between 1900 and 1920, an era of reunion between north and south. Built on white supre­macy, this reunion was purchased at the cost of the African-American popu­la­tion and by forget­ting that the war was about the aboli­tion of slavery. Only a few decades after the end of the Civil War, the nearly ubiqui­tous monu­ments signaled the decline of America’s commit­ment to a post-slavery order charac­te­rized by equa­lity among men, pledged at Gettysburg to the “last full measure of devotion.”

How should socie­ties deal with memo­rials built in times of fraught memory? When recal­ling the sacri­fices of one group meant thro­wing a tarp of forget­ting over the suffe­rings of another?  When the statues speak only of violence endured but are mute about violence inflicted?

The Federal Republic’s Vexed Monuments

The problem haunts postwar German history as well, but in a more oblique manner. While virtually no public monu­ments in Germany honor the fighting men of World War II (save for a number of mili­tary bases named after Nazi gene­rals), there are a plethora of “Monu­ments to the Fallen.”  Numbe­ring in the tens of thou­sands, these public memo­rials to soldiers who died in war may be found in almost every village and town in West Germany. But unlike in France, where such memo­rials were situated in the town square, at the town hall, or in some other public space, almost all of Germany’s monu­ments to the fallen of World War II were situated in sacral spaces—in churchyards or in cemeteries.

In the 1950s, it is often argued, silence descended on the Federal Repu­blic. Former Nazis came back into posi­tions of power and influence. Skele­tons from the Nazi era found their way into the attic. Memory spoke in hushes, if at all, and mour­ning was hardly worked through.

One group did, however, set up public markers of mour­ning. This was the “expel­lees,” the some twelve-million who fled, first pell-mell, then in a more orderly fashion, from the east. Compared to most German civi­lians, they suffered disproportionately–from the violence of war, from ethnic violence, from mate­rial depri­va­tion, from the loss of hearth and home, and (the women and girls) from rape. Nor were they univer­sally welcomed when they arrived in the west. As food, fuel, and housing were in short supply after the war, the gene­ro­sity of Germans in the western sectors and the early Federal Repu­blic quickly evapo­rated and tensions flared. And yet wherever the expel­lees finally settled, they even­tually erected monu­ments to the land they had lost and to the some two million who had peri­shed. Some 1500 monu­ments to the expel­lees now dot the land­scape of the Federal Repu­blic of Germany.

Monu­ment at the old ceme­tery Berge­dorf, source: wikipedia

The first major wave of expellee monu­ments came in the 1950s. Roughly a third of all expellee monu­ments were situated in sacral spaces, such as churchyards and ceme­teries, while the majo­rity were in secular spaces, like town squares, market places, or at roadside on the outskirts of town. A few made natio­na­list appeals, if typi­cally couched in a language of universal rights–proclaiming, for example, that the “right of self-determination is also for Germans.” Two thirds of all expellee monu­ments mourned those who had lost their lives during the expul­sion. Another popular trope was the “unfor­gotten home­land.” Some­times this took the form of public signs, metal or wooden arrows poin­ting the way and regis­tering the distance in kilo­me­ters to places like Königs­berg, Danzig, and Breslau. And in a few isolated cases, there were maps engraved in bronze of Germany, divided into three parts, in its 1937 borders.

No doubt, these monu­ments helped main­tain a prewar mental map of Germany. But even before Chan­cellor Willy Brandt signed the Warsaw Treaty of 1970, the ques­tion of whether most expel­lees actually expected to return to their home­land, or to have their home­land annexed into the Federal Repu­blic, remains a matter of conjec­ture. Most of the expel­lees were older people, women who had lost their husbands, and children. It was, in the main, their male leaders—schoolteachers, pastors, local officials—who likely culti­vated the more poli­tical goals. As the first postwar decade wore into the second, the sense surely spread that despite all the monu­ments, signs, books, and ceme­tery evoca­tions, the general popu­la­tion of western Germany, inclu­ding the children of expel­lees, had begun to place these names some­where in the deep recesses of their mind. They made these places and people into Names that No One Names Anymore, as Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, editor of the weekly Die Zeit, famously entitled her lament, published in 1962. Nearly six decades later, those names have fallen further still into the chasm of coll­ec­tive amnesia.

Monu­ments that Silence, Too

Despite their proble­matic poli­tics, the public monu­ments to the expel­lees addressed legi­ti­mate ques­tions. How to publicly mourn the death of those who lost their lives far away? How to main­tain the connec­tion between those who fled and survived and those who lost their lives? And how to bring the dead symbo­li­cally home, into a new house?

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Like the monu­ments to the Confe­deracy, Germany’s monu­ments to the expel­lees were also vexed. For they too told of violence endured not inflicted. They too deflected the ques­tion of why there was a war at all. And just as surely as the monu­ments to the confe­deracy repressed that slavery was the reason for the Civil War, the monu­ments to the expel­lees fell silent about the perse­cu­tion of Slavic natio­na­li­ties. Indeed, they often ques­tioned the legi­ti­macy of Polish or Russian sove­reignty over lands the expel­lees were still calling lost. By 1968, there were roughly 500 monu­ments to the expel­lees. But of the some 1300 synago­gues that had been destroyed or dese­crated in the November Pogrom of 1938, less than a hundred had yet to receive even the barest plaque docu­men­ting the assault.

Monu­ments to the Expel­lees have long since fallen out of poli­tical favor–especially on the left. Already in 1964, a plan to erect expellee signs in Tübingen elicited angry, sati­rical coun­ter­pro­po­sals to comple­ment them with signs to Ausch­witz. The tenacious adhe­rence to revi­sio­nist poli­tics on the part of the Fede­ra­tion of Expel­lees has not helped the situa­tion. Nor have tone-deaf expres­sions of false equi­va­len­cies: compa­ring the German to the Jewish diaspora, for example, or clai­ming that the expul­sion of the Jews and the Germans both derived from the same spirit of national hatred. 

Staging Coun­ter­n­ar­ra­tives

And yet, by often empha­si­zing loss and mour­ning, those monu­ments repre­sent early attempts to mark publicly one of the most dramatic twentieth-century changes in the social distri­bu­tion of death: the rise in the percen­tage of the civi­lian dead. In World War I, accor­ding to one calcu­la­tion, civi­lian deaths accounted for some 20%, and in World War II some 50% of all deaths. Since 1945, civi­lian deaths make up the great prepon­derance of global deaths in war–roughly 90%. Moreover, these horren­dous civi­lian casu­alty rates are not just a matter of imper­sonal bombs drop­ping from the air. The high inci­dence of rape by Red Army soldiers of German women and girls in terri­to­ries from which expel­lees were forced to flee tells of other lines blurred between comba­tants and non-combatants. 

As is true of monu­ments to the expel­lees, the very exis­tence of Confe­de­rate monu­ments reminds us of a dark history, even if, in their inten­tion and icono­graphy, they attempted to silence it. We are ther­e­fore called upon to bring our own agency to them, and remember, for example, that those who fought for the Confe­deracy often came from poor white fami­lies, and essen­ti­ally fought and died for rich landow­ners. We might also recall that the Civil War was indeed an American Tragedy, and for no one as poignantly as for the poor fami­lies of the south. For it was Souther­ners, gene­rally spea­king, who dispro­por­tio­na­tely lost sons, brot­hers, and fathers, and found their land deva­sted, their farms ruined, their liveli­hoods destroyed.

Robert E. Lee Monu­ment, Rich­mond, Source:

Ulti­m­ately, however, early attempts to grapple with the legacy of the social distri­bu­tion of death of modern warfare are them­selves historic arti­facts in the same measure that the history of memory is now part of history more gene­rally. This is what really unites monu­ments to the expul­sion and monu­ments to the confe­deracy. Their sheer exis­tence, histo­ri­city, and physi­cality invites, indeed demands, our continued enga­ge­ment. They can be commented on and histo­ri­cized, not just for what they comme­mo­rated but also for what they left out, not just for their inten­tions, but also for their omis­sions. The comple­xity of the coll­ec­tive memory of the Civil War, inclu­ding its ties to racism and white supre­macy, is now part of American history; for it is part of a mate­rial record that helps explain why, some 170 years after the war, Ameri­cans are still talking about the war as if it happened a few decades ago.

Not erasure, but commen­tary, in commu­nity after commu­nity, is the more forceful response, requi­ring local enga­ge­ment, long-term agency, and poli­tical tenacity. Like­wise, the expellee monu­ments tell of a period in postwar German history when empathy with the plight of others remained constricted, mour­ning was still only about an ethnic “us,” suffe­ring was a compa­ra­tive calculus, and one thought more of violence endured than violence inflicted. In both cases, the resul­ting markers, confe­de­rate memo­rials and monu­ments to the expel­lees, can also be worked through: in order to stage a coun­ter­n­ar­ra­tive, to face the diffi­cult past, and to make that turn to the diffi­cult past part of a new histo­rical land­scape that includes the history of memory.