Cover: Statue of King John 1st in Lisbon, Portugal.
Europe, You’re Up: By the end of the week, President Trump is expected to sign an executive order that would protect public statues and federal monuments by making vandalizing or destruction to them punishable by jail time. While the text of the executive order is still being finalized the president said in a tweet earlier this week that people who deface, damage, or destroy federal monuments and statues should get “up to 10 years in prison.” Two weeks ago we detailed what both sides are saying about removing Confederate statues and symbols across the country, so instead of repeating ourselves we want to zoom out to assess whether this is an America-only issue. It’s not. In fact, across the pond, the same debate is simmering in Europe and has come to a boil in countries like the United Kingdom and Germany. What do Europeans think about statue removal? Here’s what both sides are saying:
On the Left: Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post points out that Europe has been forced to face its own histories of injustice thanks to protests in the US. On June 9th, a statue of Edward Colston was thrown into the water in Bristol, UK. Colston was a 17th-century English merchant, and his family profited from the British trade of African slaves to the New World. Tharoor writes that “conservatives still insist that calls to remove monuments connected to bloody legacies of slavery and colonial exploitation are acts of intolerance, antithetical to the telling of history itself,” but they ignore the fact that “… a statue’s toppling, often under circumstances of widespread popular approval, is also an act of history.” David Olusoga echoes this sentiment in The Guardian saying, “[Statue removal] is history. It is one of those rare historic moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.” Tharoor adds, “It speaks of a broader European blind spot: Though many on the continent look in horror at the United States’ police violence and explosions of racial unrest, fewer feel the need to atone for the imperial systems of injustice that in many cases built the economic and societal foundations of their own modern nation-states.”
On the Right: The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board begins by saying that Europe’s statue debates are “sometimes positive and just as often ridiculous” as those in the U.S. For example, “in the positive column, there’s Belgium’s rethink of statues honoring King Leopold II, and Bristol’s removal of monuments to Edward Colston in the United Kingdom. Leopold’s personal rule of Belgian Congo was marked by brutality on an industrial scale, with mass amputations a favored means of controlling a population enslaved in service of Leopold’s rubber interests. Colston made his fortune in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” The WSJ Ed-Board goes on to say, however, “the problem in both places is that the statues have been attacked by mobs rather than removed by local governments after reasoned debate.” In their view, this is why statues of Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi are now “other mob targets.” Did Churchill make mistakes? Sure. “The role of Churchill’s government in exacerbating a Bengal famine that killed several million Indians in 1943 is worth debating. But Churchill’s leadership in defeating Nazi Germany counts for more to any rational mind.” And while some statues are coming down, others are going up. In Germany, a far-left party erected a controversial statue of communist leader Vladimir Lenin last weekend in the western city of Gelsenkirchen. Lenin was a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution and has remained a symbol of communism rule across the world. Additionally, “hundreds of streets and squares across Germany still are named after Karl Marx.” In a 2017 post, David Satter wrote a WSJ op-ed in which he argues that in 1917 Bolsheviks turned Marxist-Leninist ideology into reality. Over the past century, Satter says this political philosophy is responsible for the deaths of 100 million people “…caused by communist regimes that the Soviet Union created and supported—including those in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. That makes communism the greatest catastrophe in human history.” In summary, right-leaning outlets like the WSJ Ed-Board see statue removal both at home and abroad as destructive and hypocritical.
Flag This: In both the US and Europe, it’s evident that the extremist subset of left-leaning parties see toppling and vandalizing statues as the only answer to the debate about their existence. In reality, moderates from both sides—right and left—seem to agree on three things. First, some statues actually should be taken down. Above, we point out how the right-leaning WSJ Ed-board says it was a “positive” decision to remove the Colston monument. This aligns with the sentiment from the left-leaning Washington Post. Second, statue removal should be dictated by “local governments after reasoned debate,” according to the same WSJ piece. Tharoor points out in The Washington Post that if a statue is removed by debate and democratic vote, there are calls in Europe for them to be placed in institutions and museums so citizens can learn from their “country’s imperial legacy.” Lastly, both sides even seem to agree on the hypocrisy of attacking some monuments and leaving others alone. For example, Karl Marx chose a private London burial plot instead of alternatives provided by the state. To this day, visitors have to pay to see his grave. This is something both the right and left have labeled as extremely ironic.