For several weeks, I’ve been trying to formulate a post on the Confederate monument issue, but I’ve had a hard time formulating my thoughts. But Tim’s recent, thoughtful post on the issue made me feel that I should just put my thoughts down, however imperfectly.
To cut to the chase: I am less convinced than Tim that simply eliminating Confederate monuments is the right course of action. I sympathize with Tim’s view that these monuments constitute bad history, that bad history, in general, deserves to be corrected, and that these monuments are continuing sources of pain, especially for African American citizens of the states in which they appear. This last point I take particularly seriously. And yet…
As Tim says, it’s a dubious proposition that we learn our history from our monuments…though these particularly monuments reflected a larger, false narrative about the Civil War and Reconstruction that recurred in textbooks, speeches, and other narratives that are more likely sources of citizens’ ideas about the past. But that is, in fact, why I remain unconvinced that simply removing them is the right course of action.
For although these monuments represent a racist and false interpretation of the American past, that Neo-Confederate story has itself been a central ideological pillar of white supremacy since at least 1877. And remembering that story and the damage it has caused is nearly as important a task for public history as understanding the Civil War and Reconstruction themselves.
Americans love to comfortably forget the difficult parts of our past. And when those difficult parts are simply too obvious to entirely forget, we tend to minimize their importance. For example, everyone knows that slavery existed in this country before 1865. And nearly everyone will acknowledge that it was a Bad Thing. But there are all kinds of ways of minimizing its harm or its importance, from John Crowe Ransom’s claim in I’ll Take My Stand that slavery was “monstrous enough in theory, but, more often than not, humane in practice,” to all the old arguments that Southern states’ attempted secession in 1860-61 was about something other than slavery. Even D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which presents an extraordinarily racist, false narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction, suggests that slavery was an evil, though it blames slavery on New England slave traders and suggests that it was the least bad system for an (unfortunately) multiracial society.
Those who argue that the Confederate battle flag is “heritage, not hate,” are half right. While it is certainly a symbol of hate, it also part of an unfortunate heritage. And there’s some danger that, once we all acknowledge it as a symbol of hate, we will forget what a central role it played in a consequential understanding of white, Southern identity, especially in the decades after the Brown decision.
And that is my concern about simply removing Confederate monuments, that doing so will encourage another round of self-interested forgetting. And since we are nowhere near conquering the poisonous legacy of white supremacy in this country, that forgetting is particularly dangerous.
But having said that, I’m not prepared to argue that we should preserve all Confederate monuments, because their bad history retains a cultural purchase and their presence is an ongoing source of pain and a symbol of ongoing oppression.
Toward the end of his piece, Tim raises – as many have before – the example of “postwar Germans and former Soviet citizens correct[ing] their own public memory by toppling monuments to hate.” But this is not an entirely accurate account of what happened in 1945 or 1989-91. To begin with, the toppling of Nazi monuments was an explicit policy of the Allies, who were understandably unwilling to leave it to the Germans to determine what their future relationship to Nazism would be. At least initially, this destruction of most of the monuments of Nazism helped underwrite a certain forgetting in West Germany in the two decades or so after the War. Starting in the 1960s, however, the process that has come to be known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) began to take hold, in part because a younger generation of Germans started to hold their parents’ generation to account. Though Vergangenheitsbewältigung took place in a world without Nazi monuments, the physical remains of Nazism that were still standing – from concentration camps whose grounds had been preserved for the purposes of memory to the sites of various important Nazi buildings, such as the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, which is now the site of an exhibit called the Topography of Terror – have played a crucial role in the process of public remembering in late 20th- and early 21st-century Germany.
The case of Soviet and Communist monuments and public art in the former territory of the USSR and the old Eastern Bloc is more complicated. For while many works were destroyed, many others remain. And their continuing presence has, I think, helped enrich the public dialog about how, for example, 21st-century Germans in the former East should relate to the history of the DDR.
One of the big differences between Germany in 1945 and reunified Germany after 1989 is that while the Allies feared the revival of Nazism in the immediate aftermath of the War, few believed that a revival of state socialism was a threat after the fall of the Wall and the subsequent collapse of the SED (the DDR’s governing party) and, in short order, the DDR itself. In fact, the relationship of Germans to the DDR past is complicated. One of contemporary Leipzig’s iconic sights is the Löffelfamilie (“Spoon Family”). A large neon sign that stands behind what is now a beer garden, the Löffelfamilie originally appeared in 1973 advertising VEB Feinkost Leipzig (roughly “Nationally-owned Gourmet Foods Leipzig”). VEB Feinkost was a DDR institution, founded in the early 1950s and surviving for a few years after the fall of the Wall. Today, only the name (which now refers to a kind of cultural complex where the old food store was) and the neon sign remain. The Löffelfamilie is considered a Kulturdenkmal (“cultural memorial”). But what exactly is it memorializing? The sign itself is delightful, especially when lit up at night. It’s a colorful, kitschy piece of commercial art. It’s also an example of Ostalgie, as the German’s call nostalgia for the lost world of East Germany. And yet it seems to exist today much more for its immediate aesthetic effect than for its historical referent. Leipzig has a number of other prominent, old DDR-era signs that have been left up, such as this one advertising the Volkseigene Möbel Kombinate der DDR (“National Furniture Combines of the GDR”). At any rate, such Ostalgie exists alongside a strong sense of the evils of the DDR regime, which are on display in two of Leipzig’s other major attractions: the museum dedicated to the Stasi at its old headquarters (die Runde Ecke) and the Forum for Contemporary History. It is in fact not necessary to erase all signs of a disagreeable or even evil past regime in order for a society to think critically about its past.
So here’s my bottom line: our understandable desire to rid the Southern landscape of celebrations of the Confederate past erected in the service of post-Reconstruction white supremacy needs to be balanced by an awareness that forgetting about uncomfortable parts of the American past is a bad national habit. Now that more and more Americans have grown properly uncomfortable with the long-dominant Southern understanding of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, we need to avoid simply sweeping the history of that understanding under the rug. And I suspect that means we ought to at least selectively preserve and repurpose some of those Confederate monuments as a reminder of the power and significance of this particular brand of bad history.
 The story in the DDR was somewhat different, as a limited kind of official remembering and acceptance of guilt for the evils of Nazism underwrote the new regime.