Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

American Iconoclasm

Why the broken statues should not be removed

A Comment by David de Boer

Tearing down ‘offensive’ monuments? Keep the relics in place, but with a radical mutilation.

It is a strange sight. In a way, the statue of the young Confederate soldier that was torn down in Durham, North Carolina, looks like a bog body: an unnatural, crushed corpse from the past that has somehow found its way back to the surface. Moreover, bog bodies and young confederate soldiers give rise to the same question: Did they die as a punishment or as a sacrifice in a conflict that was not really theirs to begin with?

b/w photo of the Nazi monument "The color sergeant" at the entrance of the former Chérisy barracks in Konstanz
The color sergeant (Der Fahnenträger). Nazi monument (erected 1938) at the entrance of the former Chérisy barracks in Konstanz

The wave of iconoclasm that currently shakes the Southern United States reminds me of a statue which has been the object of heated discussion for years in Konstanz. A massive Wehrmacht soldier still guards the entrance of the 1930s Chérisy barracks – now a leafy social housing complex where I am living.

Proponents of removal argue that a piece of propaganda from the Third Reich has no place in the public space. Opponents argue that history should not be erased. In their opinion, the cement soldier confronts people and makes them reflect on the painful history of their own surroundings.

As a historian, I have always been intrigued by the statue, and over the years I must have asked dozens of neighbors and frequent visitors what they thought about the soldier. Interestingly, at least half of the people had no idea what I was talking about: they had never actually registered the four-meter tall monument. As Swiss art historian Dario Gamboni argues, the public space is the ideal place for an art work to disappear from sight without ceasing to exist.

About two years ago, someone covered the statue’s pedestal with a banner showing a copy of the soldier, now with crutches and his body covered in bandages. Above, an inscription reads ‘Propaganda’ (with an arrow pointing to the statue) and ‘Realität’ (with an arrow pointing to the life-size image.) In the meantime, the statue has become a focus of attention. It compels passersby to think about the effects of propaganda and the role a dark history should play within our cultural memory.

Similar discussions take place all over the world. In the Netherlands people have been fighting for decades about what to do with the proud public relics of their colonial past. Throughout the years, several monuments dedicated to Governor-General J.B. van Heutsz (1851-1924), ‘the Butcher of Atjeh’, have been besmeared, scratched, and bombarded with explosives. Of course, this is vandalism. At the same time, the tangible struggle over one’s visible past is a precious thing that should not be immediately cleaned up.

The most effective way of confronting a people with their shared past is by keeping the relics in place, but with a radical mutilation or recontextualization.

450 years ago an iconoclastic fury raged through the Low Countries. In current-day Belgium, which was recatholicized, almost every memory of the destruction was wiped away by the exultant baroque of the Counter-Reformation. In today’s Netherlands, where the churches became Reformed, one can still see examples of the broken art. There are only few objects which resonate conflicts of the past as intensely as these images still betray the individual sledgehammer blows of the heated sixteenth century.

Where images are used to celebrate a racist history, iconoclasm can be necessary. But if you remove the image, you erase its history. The most effective way of confronting a people with their shared past is by keeping the relics in place, but with a radical mutilation or recontextualization. I hope that they will keep the wry soldier in Durham where it is – albeit in his unnatural, bent over state.

Let me conclude with a suggestion for what is currently the most controversial statue in Netherlands: Keep Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587-1629) in the market square of Hoorn. But erect a monument dedicated to the Massacre of the Bandenese, which he commanded, in front of him. Or else, pull him over just a little bit and make him bow to the sorrow that he wreaked.

The Dutch original of this article was first published in the Amsterdam based newspaper “Trouw” on 22 August 2017. Translation by the author.

David de Boer is PhD candidate in the Research Group “Revolts as Communicative Events in the Early Modern Period” within the Center of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration” at the University of Konstanz. He is conducting research about “Communicating Revolt in the Dutch Republic.”