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Yesterday's Heroes Are Being Toppled. We Can Remove Statues, But We Cannot Remove History.

Veröffentlicht am 21.06.2020

Why musealisation is key in the debate over the removal of controversial statues and the politics of memory. A translation of my essay for Neue Zürcher Zeitung from June 19, 2020

Not surprisingly, the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston (1636 - 1721) in Bristol has given rise to a debate. Demonstrators of the Black Lives Matter movement have sunk the statue of the British politician and slave trader in the harbour basin. The German historian Hedwig Richter commented convincingly on Twitter and in an article in Der Spiegel that criticism should not lead to historical misrepresentation and that differentiation is needed. But she also stressed that many works, such as Karl Marx or Nazi sculptures, were removed from public space for good reasons. Richter is right. Statues of slave traders belong in museums, not in public space - at least not uncommented, as I will argue below.

Instead of removal through spontaneous self-empowerment, however, the path of democratic legitimacy should be chosen. Actions such as those in Bristol or now in Brussels, where statues of the cruel colonial ruler Leopold II are dragged for good reasons, are successful in the short term and can be well exploited by the media. In the long term, however, they can prove counterproductive, as they invite problem solving through decissionist action rather than deliberative democracy. Ideally, it should be possible to tackle the problem through direct democracy: through civil society initiative, public discourse, voting, i.e. democratic legitimation. That, of course, is easier said than done. But not least, such an approach would help to take the wind out of the sails of the respective opponents. They will not be able to claim that these are just actions of a few people who are upset, and then claim that they themselves may as well create facts through actions.

In general, the removal of public images and their replacement by new ones is a completely normal, even inevitable process. If this were not so, tribal idols would still be standing in the pedestrian zone today. Not only since the violent death of George Floyd have statues been constantly criticized, attacked and demolished all over the world. Mostly, however, this happens without global media uproar. For example, a research group at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand, recently published that attacks on statues in New Zealand have been on the increase since 1990, from cut noses to decapitations to complete destruction. In Europe, hardly anyone noticed. Kijan Espahangizi of the ETH Zurich recently analysed in a brilliant essay how events in the USA are "pushed into social media and global discourses by the full force of US cultural production". As for the methods or, more precisely, the morality of the methods by contemporary activists, it should be noted that they are walking in the footsteps of dubious predecessors. This is exactly how the early Christians in their furor went against the pagan statues and more recently the Islamic State in Palmyra.

Because the situation in the USA – from where the Black Lives Matter movement has originated – cannot be generalized, precise side glances at other parts of the world are worthwhile. When I traveled to rural Ukraine for a reportage in 2017, the statues of Marx and Lenin that had been standing in small villages the year before had disappeared. An elderly inhabitant of the village of Tarutino complained: "I am not a communist, but this is part of our history! Why should we wipe it out?" He touched on a crucial aspect of the politics of memory. History is never historical. Progress is never linear. The ghosts of the past will always haunt us – and then catch up with us when we think we've left them behind.

It is therefore advisable to leave not all, but some questionable monuments of the past in public space. Not as idols, but as sparring partners also for those who do not go to museums or read history books. Artefacts from authoritarian times can help to keep the critical examination of history alive. The German pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale, for example, is a Nazi building. Precisely because it wasn't torn down, as has been repeatedly demanded, artists and the public still deal with the Nazi era in a lively, critical, creative way. This doesn't happen by itself - the debate must be encouraged, an appropriate context must be created.

In Taiwan, too, an intensive debate on how to deal with controversial monuments of the past has been sparked in recent years. Politicians and citizens argue about whether or not the statues of the authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887 - 1975) should be removed from public space. Only recently Chiang Kai-shek's statue was removed from the airport of the capital Taipei under protest. Chiang ruled Taiwan with an iron hand from 1949 until his death (the so called phase of "White Terror"). In 2017, the ruling Democratic Progress Party (DPP) passed the "Transitional Justice Law" and demanded that "symbols and signs [of authoritarian rule] ... should be removed, renamed or otherwise disposed of". The phrase "otherwise disposed of" leaves room for interpretation, but the main message is clear: the authoritarian times are over, hence their symbols should also disappear.

The people I met and discussed with on my travels in Taiwan, from artists to system administrators to tea merchants and administrators, asked themselves: How will we deal with our recent past when fewer and fewer testimonies of it are found in public space? It is different to read about something abstractly in a history book than to encounter a physical manifestation of the phenomenon in question in public space. In Taiwan, it is also noticeable that on the one hand the monuments of Chiang Kai-shek were not razed after 1975. On the other hand, Taiwan today is the most open and liberal democracy in Asia. Accordingly, it is basically possible to preserve monuments of the authoritarian past and still move forward.

Maybe the either/or question is the problem itself. It presupposes that there are only two possibilities: either to continue the glorification of the "Generalissimo" implied in the statues (the statues remain) or to make room for a democratic future (the statues disappear). But should it not be possible to open a third space beyond condemnation or admiration? Of course it is not enough to simply maintain the status quo. A sparring partner must be recognisable as a sparring partner.

What statues like those of Chiang Kai-shek or Edward Colston lack is a context that makes them, like the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale, identifiable as places of discourse. Promising steps in this direction have already been taken. When I was in Taiwan in 2018 for a guest lectureship, the exhibition Family Memo. Island of Memory and Migration tookplace in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. It was about Taiwan's recent history of migration and celebrated diversity. Chiang Kai-shek, however, continued to sit in the hall as a gloomy bronze monument – in a sense, he himself had become part of "diversity". Such temporary or permanent encounters of past, present, future and different value systems are pioneering. Complex constellations invite reflection and encourage commitment.

To this end, the incriminated statues could be combined not only with text panels, but also – and better still – with other statues and other artifacts. These would enable the viewers to compare past and present and to understand genealogies. With a view to Taiwan, one could combine statues of the civil rights activist Shih Ming-teh with Chiang Kai-shek statues to illustrate what has changed. One could also fill the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall with more statues, for example of the democracy activist and musician Freddy Lim or the current liberal democratic President Tsai Ing-wen. In short, monuments can be extended and turned into museums in the contemporary sense, i.e. into places of discourse rather than – supposedly – evidence. Musealisation, not moralisation, is the key.