Destroying Confederate Monuments Hurts Us All—and Accomplishes Nothing

Workers remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the south mall of the University of Texas in Austin

Eternally vilifying the losers of some past conflict leads to eternal division.

The statue says all of this, and that’s only one of the countless stories that cities like Vienna tell you as you walk through their streets. Here they burned a poor woman who was accused of being a witch. Fortunately, the witch hunts never took hold in Vienna and she was the only victim. Here is the massive, gold covered monument commemorating the end of the plague that had decimated the population of the city—a premature celebration, because the plague was to recur—and representing as well one of the first examples of the new style of High Baroque. From this basement, a baker’s apprentice heard the sounds of Ottoman shovels trying to dig their way under the battlements, and raised the alarm. In this wall, see the Ottoman cannonball that struck the house. Was it removed because it reminded people of the terrible siege and famine and the slaughter of tens of thousands of townspeople and villagers by the advancing Ottoman army? No, it was gilded and left in place and given a commemorative plaque, and thereby converted into a testimonial to the brave resistance of the vastly outnumbered, besieged Viennese citizenry, who successfully held the line after their Emperor Leopold and his family fled and abandoned them.

Nearly every inch of Vienna has a story. The major metro hub Sweden Square, thoughtlessly traversed by thousands of people every day? This is where the historic hotel Metropole once stood, until it was taken over by the Gestapo and converted into their headquarters. Badly damaged by bombing during the war, the decision was later made to level this structure because of its dark history. In the 1950’s, though, a group of concentration camp survivors decided to put up a plaque as a reminder. In the 1980’s, this was replaced by a larger plaque put up by the city, which also added a granite block taken from the Mauthausen Quarry and a statue representing a concentration camp survivor. The inscription, composed by the Survivors’ Association, reads:

Here stood the house of the Gestapo. For us, who believed in Austria, it meant hell. For many, it was the gateway to death. It has fallen into ruin along with the rest of the “Thousand Year Reich.” But Austria was resurrected and with it so were our dead, the victims whose memory shall never die.

A walk through European cities, towns and often even the countryside is an experience in time travel, across layers upon layers of human courage, folly, error and triumph. As the present generation, we add to these layers and are their transitory curators. This is a position of responsibility, requiring careful thought, not sledgehammers. That some of the anti-Confederacy activists are explicitly calling for the latter, is disgraceful and unbecoming.

And not very smart.

A few years ago, controversy arose over a plaque on the wall of a public housing complex in the ninth residential district of Vienna. It was an ordinary plaque bearing an unremarkable quote, except that the author of the words was Adolf Hitler. At some point, someone had chiseled away his name, thus the plaque had gone unremarked for a time, but later its provenance was discovered and made public. Action had to be taken. But action of what type? Easiest would have been to just remove the plaque. Here, by the way, is what it says: “We pray to you Lord God, let us never vacillate or become cowardly, let us never forget the duties we have taken on.” Generic enough, until you considered the author, and then they take on an ominous cast—what murderous “duties” might he have been alluding to? And how dare such a monster call upon God… Residents, local politicians, historians, everyone weighed in. Agreement was quickly reached on two points. It couldn’t stay the way it was, but neither should it be removed, because what’s really wrong is to forget.

The solution that has since found broad acceptance in Western Europe—and that I think should be emulated everywhere—is to “clearly mark (controversial or problematic monuments) and place them in context.” In this instance, the plaque was highlighted with brackets and visually connected via a pathway to a large glass marker upon which was inscribed a history of the housing complex. It had been built during Austria’s brief era of reform under the social democrats after World War I, then later this plaque had been put up to falsely claim the public housing as an achievement of the Nazis. The marker also details the fate of the Jewish residents. I suggest that a similar approach will work very well for Confederate monuments and statues. Keep them, but append information about the Civil War, its enormous human cost and the not-yet-resolved problem of racism.

There really is no way to cleanse history of all of its ugly parts and have anything left over. Following the logic of the anti-Confederacy trend, shouldn’t we be removing any signs of England? Instead, U.S./UK relations could hardly be warmer. They cheerfully attend our Fourth of July celebrations, where we host them with no hard feelings about their former oppressive rule or the casualties of the War of Independence. Why? Because that American Revolution was a long time ago, and everyone knows how it came out and no one is worried about its result being challenged. Well, you will say, that’s not a good analogy. The Confederacy lives on in diehards who still see its flag as a symbol of white supremacy.