Hilltop Views

Letter to the editor: A professor’s take on Confederate statue removal

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Jesse James Greene’s “Confederate Statues Should Be Repurposed for Education, Not Celebration,” which appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of Hilltop Views, is an excellent, thought-provoking editorial. As someone who has taught, studied and traveled in various foreign countries, I find it interesting to find parallels in the experiences of other societies which are grappling with their past.

Some good examples are the former Marxist countries of Eastern Europe. The eastern part (the German Democratic Republic until 1990) of the reunified Germany has an interesting philosophy on removing statues, changing names of streets, etc. The general rule is this:

If someone was a 19th-century Marxist, then it’s still okay to be remembered with a statue or street name. The obvious examples are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Karl Marx University in Leipzig reverted to its original name of the University of Leipzig. Karl-Marx-Stadt (city) took back its original name of Chemnitz.

With 20th-century Marxists, it gets trickier. Nowhere will one see today a statue of, or a street named after, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Leon Trotsky, etc. However, one still honors post-19th-century Marxists if the person was martyred by the Nazis or other right-wing groups. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by paramilitary thugs in 1919; Ernst Thälmann died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. The moral reasoning is that, whatever their communist sins, they achieved absolution by being murdered by people even worse.

Other countries have also wrestled with these issues. Outside the House of Commons in London stands an imposing statue of Oliver Cromwell, the military leader of the parliamentary side in the English Civil War in the 17th century. Historical analogies are never exact, but one can think of Cromwell as England’s Robert E. Lee, except that in this case Cromwell won. Some think that the statue should be relocated or even destroyed because Cromwell was both a traitor and a war criminal (his “ethnic cleansing” of Ireland).

In South Africa, students at the University of Cape Town were successful in getting university officials to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, whom many call the “father of apartheid.” Their success led students at Oxford University in England to demand the removal of a similar statue from campus. Conservatives, however, have pointed out what they feel is the hypocrisy of some of the demonstrators, who are at Oxford on scholarships which Rhodes endowed.

The list is endless in countries around the world.  In summary, societies must determine whether historical and political figures are so odious that a statue or street name implies a seal of approval on their actions.

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Letter to the editor: A professor’s take on Confederate statue removal