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.
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?
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.
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.
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.