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Toppling Statues

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have reignited the debate over controversial statues. In this opinion piece published in 2017, France-Amérique explored the complex connection between remembrance and history through an American example, Robert E. Lee, and a French one, Marshal Pétain.

The French will not be surprised by the American controversy surrounding statues to be taken down or not depending on whether they represent pro-slavery figures. In Charlottesville, Virginia, violence broke out on the occasion of a march of white supremacists who came to protest the plan to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, which led to one death among the counter-demonstrators. Austin, Texas, has already removed a Robert E. Lee statue, as well as one of another Confederate soldier, Albert Sidney Johnston; in Alabama, the mayor of Birmingham hid the Confederate monument behind large plywood walls; in Gainesville, Florida, “Old Joe,” the statue of a Confederate soldier erected in 1904, was returned to the United Daughters of the Confederacy; and Tennessee is preparing to topple Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States during the Civil War, was toppled in Richmond, Virginia, on the night of June 10, 2020.

In France we experienced the same discomfort with the case of Marshal Pétain, which is more complicated still, since he was in turn the heroic victor of the Battle of Verdun in 1916 and the abominable leader of the Vichy government. In his first role he was covered with honors until 1940, and had a plaque dedicated to him in Manhattan, which the current mayor of New York has decided to remove. Pétain was celebrated in 1931 with a parade on Broadway just after Pierre Laval, head of the French government, who was then considered an eminent pacifist. This same Laval would himself meet an ambiguous destiny, later finding himself Pétain’s prime minister in 1940, even more favorable to the Nazis than was the marshal. It was a time of glory for the Marshal in France and the United States, when many streets were named Pétain in both countries. All these street names disappeared in 1945 in France, but many survive in the United States, in cities like Milltown (New Jersey), Dallas (Texas), Yuma (Arizona), and Manchester (Maine).

They have probably lasted this long by indifference: No one understands the name Pétain in these places anymore; it’s an address like any other. So in Milltown, New Jersey, when a resident discovered who this marshal was, the city council had to take a position on changing the name. They passed on the name change because the townspeople opposed it, worried that their mail would not reach them following a change of address. The New Yorkers who acclaimed Pétain and Laval in 1931 could not have guessed what the two figures would become, and neither could the French. The ambiguity surrounding Pétain lasted for a while after World War II. For example, President François Mitterrand laid flowers annually on the tomb of the “hero of the battle of Verdun.” Today, only the far right still honors Petain, not the man of Verdun but the one of Vichy, precisely because they share his nationalist and xenophobic ideology.

How are we to referee and manage the memory of a complex past? The first deciding factor is that history is written by victors: Pétain lost in 1945 and Robert E. Lee in 1865. Too bad for them and for their cause, and so much the better for morality. For victory alone does not determine commemora-tions; morality also contributes. The racism of the Confederates and of the Vichy regime, carried on by the supremacists in America and by the Front National party in France, still brings suffering to Black and Jewish people in both countries. Taking down Pétain and Lee is thus not to revise history; it is to avoid harming those who might become victims of murderous ideologies. It was therefore justified to remove the monument to Pétain’s memory, since the marshal’s name still inflicts real suffering on the victims of Vichy and their descendants who reside in or visit New York.

The theoretical argument according to which all traces of history, even hateful traces, must be preserved intact holds little weight for me in the face of the suffering of our contemporaries. The same question obtains for the public images of leaders of the Confederacy. In the name of history, conservatives demand that these monuments, statues, and nameplates remain where they are. But most of these monuments were erected after the Civil War by those who refused to accept its outcome: They are more political than historical monuments, and the argument of memory seems to me to disguise dark feelings. In the same way as Pétain, a statue of Lee is not only a monument; it is also an offense against those who suffered to bring about the abolishment of slavery. The historical excuse for keeping these monuments where they were erected is thus not worth much.

As for the statues, we have museums for this purpose; there are some in Moscow where those of Lenin and Stalin have been put in storage. In China, on the other hand, the statues of Mao Zedong have not been toppled; this is because the communist dictatorship has not been overthrown. In France, as far as I know, Vichy belongs to the past. The same will have to apply to segregation and slavery, of which Robert E. Lee and his companions unfortunately remain a symbol. On the other hand, nothing prevents the teaching of history, which is the indispensable remedy for any ill-conceived quarrel.


Op-ed published in the October 2017 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

  • Thank you for this thoughtful essay. Being a historian, I’ve been torn over what to do with some of these controversial statues, but making the distinction that they are more political than historical is helpful.

  • Thanks for reprinting this. Since these figures are part of history, I do think they should be represented in museums for what they were, but not displayed in public places as if they were revered figures, which they most certainly are not. As an American, I also am very concerned about efforts to limit free speech (as long as it is not inciting riots and hate crimes), even if we disagree with it.

  • La plupart de ces gens et des gens en général ne connaissent même pas l’histoire de l’esclavagisme. Tant d’ignorance fait honte au genre humain. Quelques chiffres en guise de rappel :
    – Traite transatlantique (celle pratiquée par les Occidentaux) : 11 millions de victimes chez les Africains
    – Traite arabo-musulmane : plus de 14 millions de victimes chez les Africains (17 millions selon l’historien sénégalais Tidiane N’Diaye) + au moins 3 millions de victimes chez les Européens (Espagnols, Français, Italiens, Grecs, etc.). D’après le professeur afro-américain Thomas Sowell, “plus de Blancs ont été réduits en esclavage en Afrique du Nord que de Noirs aux États-Unis ou dans les 13 colonies à partir desquelles le pays s’est constitué. Des esclaves blancs étaient encore vendus dans l’empire ottoman des décennies après que les Noirs aient été affranchis en Amérique.” Quant à Tidiane N’Diaye, il qualifie la traite des Noirs par le monde arabo-musulman de “génocide” car les esclaves noirs étaient presque tous castrés, ce qui explique qu’il existe très peu de descendants issus de la traite transsaharienne.
    Quel est le pourcentage de gens connaissant, même de manière approximative, ces faits historiques ? 5 % ? 2 % ? 1 % ? Les politiciens eux-mêmes connaissent-ils l’Histoire ?

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