In 1871, the rebelling Parisians who had created “the Commune” — think of it as the precursor to autonomous zones in the United States today — were defending their city against both besieging German and French forces. Swept up in the fever of revolution, the artist Gustave Courbet declared that the Napoleon statue was “devoid of all artistic value” and “perpetuated the ideas of war and imperial conquest.” Shortly after, a troupe of Parisians, led by Courbet, pulled down the statue to the huzzahs of spectators. When the Commune was repressed a few weeks later, the old statue was replaced with a replica.
The bill was sent to the exiled Courbet.
On both sides of the Atlantic, history now seems to be hiccuping. Protesters in the United States have defaced or demanded the removal of statues of not only Confederate generals but also national figures including George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt. In France, the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the 17th-century government minister who, as author of the “Code Noir” (“Black Code”), legalized the slave trade, has been sprayed with graffiti and splashed with red paint.
President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have found rare common ground in the wake of these events. The former has threatened 10-year prison sentences for those who vandalize statues on federal property; the latter has declared his opposition to the “effacing of any trace or name” from French history. “The Republic,” Macron announced this month, “will not take down any statue.”
Historians in both countries worry that the bébé will be tossed out with the bath water. Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of Alabama, has warned against the perverse consequences of removing the statues of Confederate leaders. This will, he warned, only facilitate “forgetting that there were once people in charge who celebrated the Confederacy and supported the ideas of white supremacy associated with it.” Similarly, the French historian Mona Ozouf recently cautioned that once any purging of monuments begins, it will be hard to end. What would be the fate of statues of those “immortal” heroes of republican France who were also colonialists or anti-Semites? Will Victor Hugo and Voltaire become persona non grata at the Pantheon?
In their defense of historical statues, some public officials and professional historians might be missing the importance of these monuments. Is it not possible, as the French historian Pierre Nora asked several years ago, that the “less memory is experienced from the inside, the more it exists through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs”?
In other words, the erection of a statue in a public space frees citizens from the real and difficult duties of memory. By commissioning statues, we collectively cancel the work of memory, outsourcing it to sculptors and engineers. The making of public memorials can, all too paradoxically, unmake collective memories.
The Austrian novelist Robert Musil anticipated Nora’s attitude toward such sites. Shortly after the end of World War I, he wrote that there is nothing “as invisible as a monument. They are, no doubt, erected to be seen — indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time, they are impregnated with something that repels attention.” When Musil wrote these words, he had in mind the growth of film and radio and the ways they distance us from the real world. Heaven knows what he would have written about our age of ear buds and cellphones.
But, remarkably, a generation often distanced from the real world by such electronic devices is forcing all of us to take stock of that very world. Monuments that had long gone unnoticed have been made painfully visible by youthful protesters demanding that older generations assume the difficult and, yes, potentially divisive vocation of memory. They have thus rendered all of us a tremendous service. To paraphrase the Panthéon’s famous inscription, their nations will one day be grateful.