The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How other countries have dealt with monuments to dictators, fascists and racists

An exhibition titled “Hitler — How Could it Happen?," about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, is set in a World War II bunker in Berlin. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

The waning days of the Confederacy did not look so different from the last hours of Nazi Germany. As Matthew Schofield of McClatchy Newspapers explained: “Flags were torn down while defeated cities still burned, even as citizens crawling from the rubble were just realizing that the governments they represented had ended.”

But decades — and centuries — later, symbols of those regimes are treated quite differently.

In the United States, the Confederacy is celebrated even today. There are more than 700 Confederate monuments in public parks, courthouse squares and state capitols nationwide. (They're not all old, either — North Carolina has added 35 such markers since 2000.) The Confederate flag still waves high above some statehouses in the South.

Not so in Germany.

In 1949, the newfound Federal Republic of Germany banned the swastika from public life. And since 1945, its government has worked to systematically get rid of Nazi-era memorials and architecture. Nazi officials were buried in unmarked graves. Swastikas were ground off buildings. Monuments and statues from the Third Reich were torn down. The military jail that housed high-ranking Nazi officials awaiting their war-crimes trials was torn down, so that it would not become a shrine for neo-Nazis. (According to Schofield, “Officials went so far as to pulverize the bricks and throw the remains into the North Sea.") Zeppelin Field, former home of Nazi party rallies, was fenced off and visitors warned to keep away.

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Even Adolf Hitler's bunker, where he killed himself, was sealed in the early 1990s, after Germany's reunification. Today, it sits underneath a parking lot marked only with a small plaque. (In November 2016, private investors paid to open a model bunker nearby for visitors as a historical exhibition, a controversial decision that upset the city's historians and Jewish leaders).*

Austrian lawmakers seize house Hitler was born in. (Video: Reuters)

In other instances, Germany has converted the seats of Nazi power into educational spaces. Germans turned the headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Security Service into a museum called the Topography of Terror, which tells of the horrors carried out by those who worked there. The Nazi-era High Command of the Armed Forces has been converted into the German Resistance Memorial Center. Berlin's Olympic Stadium, used by Hitler to glorify fascism during the 1936 Games, was reopened for a celebration of Jewish athletes. (German students spend part of each year learning about the atrocities of Nazi Germany and are required to visit at least one concentration camp before they graduate.)

Nazi symbolism is so taboo that even when it is sanctioned, it's controversial. In 2008, a man tore the head off the Hitler statue at Berlin's Madame Tussauds museum. It was restored, and the sculpture was subsequently tucked behind security glass.

“I think with the fall of the Nazi regime, Germans realized the only way to again become a valid nation was to eliminate the symbols. Banning them was appropriate,” Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, told McClatchy. “Americans made a different choice with the symbols of the Confederacy.”

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In other countries, there are echoes of Germany's approach. In Bucharest, Romania, at least six statues of Marshal Ion Antonescu have been removed in recent years. Antonescu conspired with Hitler, helping him kill at least 250,000 Jews during World War II. (The statues were not erected until the fall of the Soviet Union, when Romanians wanted to celebrate their native leaders and anti-Soviet heritage.)

In Spain, authorities have set about renaming streets that commemorate Francisco Franco. In 2006, the Spanish parliament passed a law requiring every province in the country to remove Franco statues. (Most were already gone.) But the dictator's body is still housed in a shrine called the Valley of the Fallen; critics say the prominent placement serves only to glorify his reign.

In other places, it's more complicated. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force still uses the Rising Sun flag, a controversial symbol of the country's imperial history. And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still sends offerings to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead. China and South Korea see Abe's actions as glorifying Japan's wartime crimes.

In Italy, there are few racist statues, but lots of desire to relive the past. Mussolini nostalgics still participate in thrice-yearly pilgrimages to the leader's tomb. On Ponza, where Mussolini was imprisoned in 1943, a summer festival dramatizes his stay.

The town of Latina, built by Mussolini in 1932, still offers tours designed to show off the “good things” brought by fascism. It "is a living fascist monument,” Riccardo Pece, the head of the tourist office, told Newsweek, using the original fascist name for the town. “One of the good things Mussolini did was drain the swamps, get rid of malaria and distribute land to peasants and settlers. He gave them a house in exchange for their labour and sweat. That’s why people still nourish affection for him.”

* An earlier version of this article erroneously suggested that Hitler's bunker had been reopened.

Protesters tear down a statue called the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, N.C. (Video: Reuters)