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Why Some Statues in Europe Should Be Torn Down (And Others Shouldn’t)

Monuments to fascists and King Leopold II are one thing. But why are the Brits coming for Winston Churchill?

A vandalized statue of the Belgian king Leopold II in central Brussels. June 12, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium, 12/06/2020 (Photo by Christophe Licoppe / Photonews via Getty Images)

Imagine visiting the German city of Frankfurt and walking down Heinrich Himmler Avenue, taking a left on Reinhard Heydrich Plaza, continuing down Joseph Goebbels Boulevard, and ending up in front of a golden statue of Adolf Hitler. It would never happen—in fact, sounds like a scene out of the TV show Man in the High Castle

Whoever has visited Germany will know that all the Nazi emblems were purged, in both West and East Germany, following World War II. Monuments today are reserved for politicians of the post-war period, the reunification of the 1990s, as well as resistance fighters during the Nazi era. Germany, without a doubt, has done a commendable job of educating the public about the horrors of its past and preserving artifacts for historical reappraisal. So far as controversial monuments in Germany go, the only one I can think of is the recently erected statue of Karl Marx in his birthplace of Trier.

A Godwinesque opener of sorts, and yet travel through Europe and you’ll soon discover that not all countries have done what Germany did. Having studied at a French university, I can attest that the French have never accepted responsibility for the crimes committed by their collaborationist government in the south, known as the Republic of Vichy. This name was only created later, as the official title of the non-occupied zone was the French Republic from the invasion in 1940 until liberation by the United States in 1944. President De Gaulle considered the real French Republic to have never ceased to exist, leading to the popular saying “Non, Vichy n’était pas la France” (“No, Vichy was not France”). The persecution and deportation of the Jewish community there was only recognized by President Chirac in 1995, sparking a historical debate that is still ongoing today.

But the master of having an ambiguous relationship with one’s past is Italy. That country is filled with fascist insignia and monuments, while practically every flea market will sell you artifacts that blatantly glorify Mussolini. Suggesting that Italy has not dealt with its own past can turn a conversation heated in no time. Not only have fascist monuments not been torn down, new ones have been erected as recently as 2012.

That is not to say that giving activists free rein over the removal of statues is a good idea. The conversation surrounding Black Lives Matter and its opposition to some monuments have reached Europe, but it has most intensely affected the United Kingdom, where the purging of statues has kicked COVID-19 out of the headlines. On its list of 78 statues it would like to see removed, Black Lives Matter UK names former prime minister William Gladstone (in office from 1868 to 1894). As Dr. David Jeffrey writes, the four-time liberal PM was against the slave trade, opposed the colonization of Africa, introduced the secret ballot, expanded the vote among working-class men, legalized trade unions, introduced universal schooling from ages five to 12, pushed for home rule for Ireland, fought against landlord and aristocratic privilege, and almost singlehandedly built the modern tax system. Yet despite his roaring liberal credentials, his statue is being targeted over unfounded accusations that he owned slaves himself.

Then there’s the push to remove statues of Winston Churchill, which would be a particular blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (he wrote a book on Churchill after all). Churchill has come under fire over Britain’s involvement in the Bengal famine of 1943, which cost the lives of between two and three million people. Churchill’s knowledge, responsibility, and opinion on the matter have been hotly debated in recent weeks, adding to the general understanding that Churchill is a complex figure who needs more historical study. Associating him with the famine is at present based on conjecture and bad faith. Hillsdale College has collected the relevant documentation, which largely shows that Churchill acted in good conscience.

In Belgium, meanwhile, protesters have a much better case in demanding the removal of King Leopold II. Belgium’s second monarch is credited with significant social reforms, such as largely outlawing child labor, compensation for workplace accidents, and giving Sundays off. However, what he’s better known for is the private colonization of the Congo, which began in 1885. With the help of mercenaries, he ruthlessly exploited the country for resources and hard and forced labor, with those who worked too slowly having their hands cut off. The historical consensus is that his reign caused the deaths of 10 million people in the Congo. Before his own death, he gave away his authority and “property” to the Belgian state, effectively making Belgium a colonial power in the process. Keeping a statue of him on the streets of Brussels is like erecting a statue of Hitler for building the Autobahn. By every reasonable standard, Leopold II monuments belong only in museums.

The fact is that two things can be true at once: yes, the left cancels those whom they find inconvenient in the first place; and yes, there are statues that do not deserve public glorification. Removing a statue doesn’t mean erasing its history, nor do existing statues endorse all of the views—public or otherwise—of a particular persona. A statue is erected for the actions, successes, and principles that a person stood for. We need to strike a balance between recognizing bad deeds while not judging historical characters by the social standards of today.

What ought to happen to statues of Confederate leaders is for Americans to decide. But whatever the case, it should be undertaken on the basis of a moral compass that is understandable to all.

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.

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