The need to contextualise monuments, avoiding indifference and ambiguity
Controversial statues should be dealt with according to their individual contexts.
The ruthless killing of an African American named George Floyd in the US state of Minnesota by a white policeman has sparked anti-racist protests on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, the toppling of a slave trader’s statue in Bristol was followed by the setting on fire and subsequent removal of King Leopold II’s statue in Antwerp. This monarch was responsible for the killing of 10 thousand Congolese in between the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Other statues were daubed in red paint and not for the first time. Francisco Franco on horseback comes immediately to mind. A statue of Indro Montanelli in Milan, a famous journalist who fought in Ethiopia as a fascist, was very recently smeared in pink by Italian feminists. Montanelli, remembered in Italy as a great intellectual and very critical later on in his life towards Silvio Berlusconi, took a 12-year-old Eritrean girl as a sex slave during his time invading Africa in the 1930s.
The breadth of the latest incursions has been astonishing. The debate on controversial monuments, which luckily never went too quiet, has regained dramatic momentum. As we’ve seen, from slavery to fascism is a really short step: fascists enslaved people too.
Monument to Victory
In Italy, chock-a-block with statues, effigies and bas-reliefs glorifying Benito Mussolini’s regime, from Sicily right up to the Austrian border, a serious nationwide debate on this has never really existed.
And so, while not all monuments can be easily brought down as in Bristol due to their size or because of their artistic significance, a big effort was made some years ago in South Tyrol to recontextualise a huge fascist arch made of precious Alpine white marble. This was erected by Rome in German-speaking Bozen upon annexing half of Tyrol at the end of World War One. It sits right in the middle of this town of 110,000 people, which the Italians call Bolzano.
It celebrates the wisdom of a Latin people over a barbaric culture that needed to be educated – that’s basically what the ghastly inscriptions on the Monument to Victory say (in dodgy Latin, by the way).
Today, South Tyrol is an autonomous and bilingual region within the Republic of Italy. Local authorities decided a few years ago to inaugurate a whole museum on the period between 1914 and 1945 (free entry) right underneath this marble monument.
On the square outside and all around, people walking past can read plaques which explain the significance of the arch. Bozen is a very touristy place, many wouldn’t have the faintest idea.
Fascists did terrible things to South Tyroleans: for many years there were random beatings, arbitrary murders, German was forbidden in schools and public spaces for two decades, people were forced to Italianise their names and surnames. These facts are not explained in Italian schools, which says a lot about the state of the debate around the country’s recent past.
A very big monument can at least now be interpreted differently. That’s one way of dealing with controversial structures erected in a distant past to commemorate a notable person or event, or glorify a bloody regime.
Controversy, not indifference
Other methods are fine too. Sometimes, as in Bristol, where the slave trader’s statue had caused anger for many years, and where the toppled bronze was thrown in the harbour’s waters, action can look brutal or impulsive. Yet, on closer inspection, in the context of local authorities dithering for decades (not one explanatory plaque was ever added despite public concerns from as far back as the 1920s), the protesters’ sudden intervention, irked by global inaction against racism, does appear like a very obvious solution.
As long as indifference is neutralised, controversial monuments can be dealt with in a number of legitimate ways. Erecting new, positive monuments, ought to be encouraged too; but not as direct replacements of the bad ones, as some pundits argue. These serve a purpose: to remind us how terrible life for many has been; of the injustice suffered. But all this has to be made clear to everyone. Ambiguity should be relegated to the past.
This piece first appeared on the author's blog on June 11, 2020.
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