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.

Let’s take a different example, then, from a conflict that is also not yet over and perhaps never will be: the struggle between Christianity and Islam. Let’s stay with Vienna. In its history, Vienna was twice besieged by Muslim armies. These armies cut a terrible bloody swathe across the countryside, razing villages and towns, burning down the churches along with the terrified villagers who had sought refuge therein, slaughtering women, children and the elderly by the thousands, before encircling, nearly starving out, and almost taking the capital of Vienna. There remain many reminders of these long-ago, but not forgotten days of terror. Today children play in the popular Tuerkenschanzpark (Turkish Fortification Park), from where Turkish cannons once fired on the city. Countless plaques commemorate this or that related event: here the mass of thanksgiving was held in honor of the Polish general who rode in at the head of the relief army, here is the city of Hainburg whose entire population was slaughtered with only two survivors, here is the bell that was made from the metal of melted down Turkish cannons after the Ottoman army was defeated, and so on. The tone of these monuments is bitter, angry, determined, relieved, or simply factual, in various combinations depending on what exactly they commemorate and when they were put in place. One of the artifacts had an interesting renaissance. The statue was small but covered in gold, and it depicted an Ottoman rider in the turban and loose pants of their uniform of the day. The accompanying text read only: “here stood the tent of Kara Mustapha during the second siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683.” In 1933, preparing to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the rescue of Vienna, the Austrian Department of Monuments noticed that this statue was in a sad state of disrepair. The gold had worn off and the marble had become discolored. However, they had no funds for its restoration, so they decided to apply to the Turkish embassy for a grant—and received it.

I love this story:

Your army was defeated at our gates and its commander was ordered to be ritually strangled in penalty for his failure. We are hugely happy that you were driven away and we are planning a large celebration. But here’s this attractive statue of one of your combatants, can you help us polish it up?

Subtext:

Look, we’re in no position to gloat. A few years ago we were a huge empire but now, after World War I, there’s hardly anything left of us. We can’t even afford to fix this little statue. It commemorates a shared piece of our history, and people walking by will admire the dashing Turkish soldierwhat do you say?

The Turks must have seen things similarly. They paid for the restoration, though they declined the invitation to attend the celebration of their repulsion.

A few years ago I hosted a conference about postconflict reconciliation and peacebuilding. The participants were teachers, writers, political activists and historians from Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. The specifics of their respective wars and civil wars differed, but they shared one challenge: how to process what had happened to their country and their society in a way that was truthful yet would not cause an inflammable situation to explode all over again. We convened in Colonial Williamsburg, a “living history” site that greatly enchanted our foreign guests. They loved the re-enactors who strolled about in garments of the day and chatted about news topics of that era. They loved the beautifully reconstructed Colonial era buildings, but most importantly, they found its mission statement compelling: to tell the story of America in a way that was truthful, while also ensuring that every visitor—black, white, Mayflower descendant or recent immigrant, Northerner or Southerner—had a good and enjoyable experience that left them feeling uplifted and united. This was no easy feat, the on-site historians told our group. It required honesty, but it also required historic context and nuance. You needed to acknowledge, for example, that a “founding father” had been a great statesman, while condemning the fact that he had owned slaves. You needed to accept that people have conflicting loyalties and sometimes make what later is recognized to have been the wrong, perhaps even the very wrong call. And you needed to remember that not everyone is a hero, prepared to resist conscription or the pressures of his family and his neighbors, and risk jail or even a firing squad for standing up to the powers that be.

This conversation with the Williamsburg historians, which had not even been part of the conference agenda, so fascinated the participants that they couldn’t stop talking about it. Yes, they asserted excitedly, this was exactly what needed to happen in their own countries: a way had to be found for everyone to not only face up to the terrible things that had happened and that their side and the other side had done, but to find a way to go forward together. For that, you had to refrain from humiliating or forever demonizing the losing side. Some time might need to pass before that became possible; a generation.

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