History appears to be repeating itself. The questioning of established historic narratives and the toppling of statues which we saw in the UK and in the US in 2020 also occurred in 1989. Then, in Hungary and other Central European states, statues, and monuments of famous communist leaders – as well as Marx, Engels, and Lenin – were removed from public spaces. Other statues in the region were just transformed. In Ukraine, the city of Odessa light-heartedly turned its old statue of Lenin into a monument of Darth Vader. However, the motives behind removing statues were quite different in 1989 and 2020. A comparison between the two is useful in 2021, as it helps to contextualise both the architectural and mental shift that occurred in the cities and minds of many in the UK last year. While in 1989 the removal of statues was an attempt to reconcile the identity of Hungary with its past, in 2020 the motive seemed to have been for the UK to reject part of its past.
The approach of reconciling post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe with its the pre-1989 self is the best articulated in the case of Memento Park in Hungary, where the most prominent statues of the communist era were collected in the 1990s. ‘Memento’ is a Latin word for an object kept and preserved to remind one of something. In this park, communist era statues are preserved for educational purposes, reminding future generations of the human suffering under Communism, so that history never repeats itself. As these statues are still physically located in Budapest, (even if they are in a rather marginalised part of the city), symbolically, the communist period has been preserved as an integrated part of the Hungarian history.
On the other hand, in the UK, it seems that those who attempted to remove historical statues did not wish to preserve the UK’s past for educational or commemorative purposes. When Edward Colston’s statue was thrown into the harbour in Bristol, little was done to judge Colston’s behaviour or his historical period in its entirety, nor the positives and the negatives of his character. There was no public discourse on how his character should be viewed nowadays. Throwing his statue into the water was a powerful way of objecting to his past as a slave trader. However, it must also be noted, that merely abolishing his public representation did not make his history any better, nor make it vanish. In this sense, the removal of statues does not change the past realities.
What it does, is falsely cradle societies, making them believe that, simply by removing public reminders of what the past once was, mistakes can be rectified or solved. In reality, abolishing statues is merely the rejection of the past without any attempt to heal old wounds. This does little to renegotiate our societal identity in a productive way in the long term. Therefore, it is better that our statues be preserved to serve as reminders of society as it was, and as it is. Such monuments will always allow for criticism, where it is duly merited. Their preservation can be done in such a way that the statues serve as warnings from the past, as was done in Hungary after 1989.
The context within which these statues are preserved also matters greatly. As part of the national reconciliation with communism that took place in Hungary after 1989, Memento Park was also used to add a new layer of significance to these old communist statues. In the 1950s, near Hungary’s famous Hero Square, a prestigious 18 meters tall monument of Stalin once stood. During the Revolution of 1956, revolutionaries toppled this statue. However, as the monument was so massive, Stalin’s boots (detached from its body) remained on the fundament. As the boots remained an awkward reminder of the Revolution for the communist authorities, soon after the fight for freedom had been defeated, the remaining of the Stalin statue was removed. Now, a replica of the boots is exhibited in front of Memento Park. The replica reminds us of two things. Firstly, that there was a time in Hungarian history when Stalin stood in a prominent public place in Budapest. Secondly, that by allowing only Stalin’s boots to be replicated, we are reminded of the memory of the Revolution.
As such, Hungary added a new layer of historical significance to the Stalin statue and to Memento Park. Instead of only being a simple statue park about communism, Memento Park is now also a memorial site to the brave Hungarian partisans. Thus, the re-contextualization of history in Hungary became part of the process of contextual consolidation and cultural learning. Instead of continuing to view history through a Marxist lens, Hungary reasserted its return to national historic narratives and recaptured its ability to freely represent anti-communist freedom fighters as heroes.
The desire to re-contextualise history was clearly present in 2020 as well, but it was manifested quite differently. In 2020, two attempts of re-contextualisation stood out. The first being the 1619 Project in the US. The project promotes an alternative founding date for the United States. Instead of celebrating 1776 (the year of the Declaration of Independence), the Project aims to establish 1619 (the year when the first slave ship arrived in Virginia in North America) as America’s founding date.
The second main attempt to re-contextualise history was connected with the defacing of Churchill’s statue. Previously, Churchill had been presented in British history as the Prime Minister who defeated Nazism. By calling him a ‘racist’, the protests depicted him very differently. Furthermore, as Churchill stands in front of the parliament (and inside Westminster) protestors depicting him as a racist not only attempted to recontextualise his statue, but to reframe all public spaces around him. If Churchill is viewed as a ‘racist’, then a society which allows him to stand on the most prominent square in the country is no better. A similar logic applies to the 1619 Project as well. If the founding date of the US is in 1776, then the US is predicated upon the idea of liberty. However, if the founding date of the US is 1619, then the fundament of the country is oppression and racism.
In 1989 the removal of statues in Central Europe served several clear-cut purposes: Democratisation, reconciliation, and the restoration of national narratives. It also intended to serve as a reminder of old mistakes, of the human suffering under communism, and of those who stood up against Soviet oppression. In 2020 the aims of the toppling of statues were not as straightforward. In Bristol, the aim seems to have been to reject and object to parts of the British society as they were historically; the large slave trade, the use of slaves, and the role that Colston played in it. The reframing of the Churchill statue as a monument to racism – without any historical context – also reframes and attacks those who supported Churchill in Britain’s time of need and portrays him, at best, as indifferent to racism or, at worst, in favour it. Branding large swathes of British history as racist, and therefore not credible, is a divisive move for British society rather than a progressive one. This is made all the more divisive, as this in turn blames the institutions and parliamentary structures of the U.K for even allowing the statue to have been as emblematic as it was of for so long.
Instead of abolishing and replacing statues, we need to face our past and remember it in order to grow. We need to find a way to reconcile ourselves with the things our ancestors have done in the past. No matter how painful our past is, it will not go away through the destruction of statues.
Lili Naómi Zemplényi is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.