Politics

Where America First Went Wrong on Confederate Monuments

Charlottesville’s monuments are finally coming down. Don’t forget how they got there in the first place.

Silhouette of the statue at dusk
The Robert E. Lee statue in Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Charlottesville, Virginia, has finally received the green light to remove our spurned Confederate statues. After enduring years of legal delay and violent white supremacist attacks, on April 1 the Supreme Court of Virginia decided in favor of the city’s effort to rid its downtown parks of Jim Crow–era propaganda art. It is a fitting time for this ruling: April is Confederate History Month in many Southern states, although increasingly progressive Virginia ended the observance some years ago.

Early April also marks the anniversaries of two pivotal wartime events that spelled the end of inhumane practices: the Union Army’s 1865 victory at Appomattox, Virginia, which catalyzed the end of the U.S. Civil War and the abolition of the institution of chattel slavery; and American forces’ 1945 liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, which revealed the evils of the Holocaust. After both wars, these societies faced a crucial question: How was the brutality of the past to be remembered? The descendants of defeated Confederates and those of defeated Nazis took very different approaches to that question, corresponding with their obstinacy or contrition about the war. These postwar nations’ varying levels of empathy for and democratic inclusion of persecuted groups—African Americans, Jews—who had had the most at stake in the outcome of these respective wars are reflected in the dissimilarity between American and German commemorative practices. In this country, we can learn from the path taken by Germany.

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Days after the liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, American soldiers in Weimar righteously marched 1,200 German civilians 16 miles round-trip for a compulsory tour of the concentration camp. The townspeople’s initial smiles were punctured by their shock and revulsion upon seeing its horrors. The following week, American troops detonated the massive Nazi swastika that had perched on the grandstand above Adolf Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg stadium. Captured on triumphant newsreel, this dramatic act of iconoclasm took place at the former site of massive political spectacles where National Socialists generated dangerous propaganda that fueled their murder of millions.

As they occupied Germany, U.S. troops destroyed or removed other Nazi monuments and seized thousands of works of Nazi art, including paintings of a heroic Hitler styled as a Teutonic knight mounted atop a white horse and of the stalwart Führer surrounded by an admiring throng of Wehrmacht soldiers. At the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, the Allies discussed where all this confiscated art should go. As Dexter Filkins has recently written, the U.S. agreed to store it safely under lock and key so that these ingratiating images couldn’t be put to use by potential resurgent fascists.

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The U.S. government continues to uphold its Potsdam Agreement obligation. The propaganda art is kept in a giant warehouse at the Fort Belvoir Army base in northern Virginia. Aside from occasional loans for museum exhibits and scheduled appointments by researchers and journalists, no one sees the shameful trove. The German government has shown little interest in reclaiming this collection from its American custodians and has instead focused on memorializing the victims of the Third Reich.

Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, and author of Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, argues that the U.S. could learn something important from the way Germans have confronted their past. A born-and-raised American Southerner, Neiman notes that Germany has no nostalgic Nazi memorials. “Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces, however many grandfathers fought or fell for them. … The idea that tourists would visit [Buchenwald] seeking smiling women in dirndls—much as some visit American plantations looking for ladies in hoop skirts—is obscene.”

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America’s post–Civil War Reconstruction period ended without a Potsdam-like treaty. There was no directive to destroy or restrict the metastasizing of insidious Lost Cause propaganda. Instead, bronze and marble tributes to the leaders and defenders of a short-lived renegade slaveholding republic litter the public landscapes of the American South. Coupled with commemorative spectacles convened around them, Confederate statues warp the dominant memory of the Civil War into a perverse celebration of a sanitized “heritage” of the Old South and its repressive, anti-democratic values. The Big Lie that the Civil War was not waged over slavery but was rather a gallant defense of the Southern homeland from “Northern Aggression,” and that slaves were happy, faithful servants to kind masters, was repeated ad nauseam in the novels, films, history curricula, and monuments of the Lost Cause civil religion. Black Americans knew better, and cultivated a countermemory of the Civil War that emphasized narratives of resistance and emancipation.

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Most professional historians have long since rejected Lost Cause interpretations. But magnolia fantasies propel the plantation pilgrimages of many smiling white American tourists’ misguided quests for romantic opulence. They arrive at an increasing number of antebellum sites where exhibits and guides depart from the Gone With the Wind script and expose the truth: that plantations were despotic forced-labor camps where the vast majority of residents suffered as enslaved laborers, and the notion of a “good” slaveholder is a contradiction in terms. The challenge of elevating this countermemory is that it has been quashed, for over a century, under misleading historical narratives as heavy as the marble and bronze monuments that we also strive to remove. All memory is selective. When memory’s frame is inclusive, prioritizing accounts of Black agency and emancipation, it allows us to interpret the Civil War as part of the ongoing freedom struggle to expand multiracial democracy. This should be an unobjectionable vision.

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Far from being chastened, however, a vocal portion of these white American tourists persist in their preference for comforting (to them) Lost Cause propaganda. They whine that the historical presentation is biased and that it kills the vacation vibe. Their lack of empathy seems to stem from a visceral preoccupation with preserving, in contradiction to fact, a self-reinforcing set of perspectives and feelings that vindicate the “just men of their times” of history, absolving or minimizing violent deeds. They should be confronted with the words of Isabella Gibbons, formerly an enslaved cook at the University of Virginia, who wrote after the Civil War about her recollection of slavery:

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Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten that by those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.

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Others insist that the problematic figures honored by such monuments can be “held in tension” with “how far we’ve come,” recommending that the landscape be “balanced” with the addition of statues recognizing history’s victims. But there is no “both sides” when one side is genocide. The suggestion that offensive statues should be left in place so that “we” can learn from them and “not forget” this difficult history disregards the fact that people of color neither need nor want to be subjected to propaganda art that underscores our subordinate status. It’s not “erasing history” to call for the removal of the sculptural analogs of “whites only” signs in public places. As Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, has said: “Not a single child deserves to grow up looking at a piece of stone or metal that tries to convince them they are not equal to other Americans.”

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The weak solution of placing a plaque laden with caveats printed in tiny font beside such a monument to “contextualize” it provides insufficient visual interruption and dodges the necessary moral intervention. Postwar Germans did not maintain fascist monuments in their town squares and affix equivocating placards in the name of “preserving history.” They (and Allied occupiers) removed or destroyed such monuments, or transformed them into places that empathetically remember the past by honoring its victims: One can ride a bus to the Buchenwald Memorial outside Weimar, or encounter the brass stumbling stones embedded in city streets. Detractors who argue that propaganda art must remain because “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” should learn from the Germans—and do as the U.S. Army did: lock it up or blow it up.

Storing or shattering propaganda can literally and figuratively clear the ground for deliberate consideration and creative envisioning. What kind of memories should be prioritized for display that can sustain our work toward a future based upon empathy and equity? Americans have an opportunity to do the work that Germans have done using all the tools for true education—museum exhibits, the arts, documentaries, commemorative events, and better history education in schools—to empathetically engage with the history of slavery and the Civil War in a truthful manner that promotes a truly inclusive democracy.

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