Americans were throwing off the British monarchy; a statue intended to celebrate it no longer had a place, and it needed toppling. History had taken a turn, and former symbols of communal pride had to follow.
“Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in “1984.” “Who controls the present controls the past.” Soviet invaders built monuments to Lenin and Stalin across their Eastern European satellites to assert their control over those countries’ destinies. Later, uprisings sought to topple these statues by way of opposing all they represented. Last year, racial-justice protesters beheaded Christopher Columbus in Massachusetts, toppled him to the ground in Minneapolis, and prompted officials to remove Confederate generals from city squares and state capitols across the South. Champions of genocide and race-based slavocracy, they were asserting, will be championed no longer.
And that’s how it ought to be, argues Alex von Tunzelmann in her thoughtful and fast-paced new book, “Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History.” Surveying centuries of high-profile statue topplings on five continents, she makes a compelling case that scrutinizing monumental statuary is an integral part of what open societies do as they reassess past values and seek new ones to guide their futures.
Von Tunzelmann, a London-based historian and screenwriter, focuses on a particular type of portrait statuary: sculptures representing historic individuals that are erected to celebrate and promote their virtues. Michelangelo’s David, the Buddhas of Bamian, the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument are therefore outside the book’s purview. The 12 she considers instead include Cecil Rhodes, Rafael Trujillo, Vladimir Lenin and King George V.
Her thesis is that portrait statues are inherently problematic. They’re a highly visible form of historical memory-making, an assertion of what values, experiences and stories define and should be venerated by the community. The problem is that societies frequently reconsider these essential stories as they undergo invasions, liberations, revolutions, and quieter forms of evolution and change. And unlike a festival, museum exhibition, speech or history curriculum, they’re inflexible, closed to revision, history set in stone. “It’s didactic, haughty, and uninvolving,” von Tunzelmann notes. “We can do better.” It’s a convincing, logic-driven argument that cuts through the emotional and ideological static around statue toppling, which often obscures the facts about how and why they were put up in the first place.
The stories she relates follow distinct trajectories but have a common pattern. From George III in Manhattan to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, one subset of citizens erected a statue to assert a story about a people. Years, decades or centuries later those stories had been discredited, the values they asserted now offensive to great swaths of the societies over which the statues loomed.
The same arguments against iconoclasm appear over and over: that it’s tantamount to erasing history; that the person was acceptable in their time; that they can be taken down only through the proper channels and processes; that if we topple say, enslaver Edward Colston from his plinth, will Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill be next?
Von Tunzelmann knocks these familiar objections down by applying a simple thought experiment: What if the statue was of, say, Adolf Hitler? Would we forget the existence of Nazi Germany without it? Does it matter that he was popular among Germans in the 1930s? Were U.S. troops wrong to blow many of them up in 1945? If somebody were comparable to Hitler, why should they be beyond scrutiny? “These arguments for keeping controversial statues do not spring from universal principles about statues or history,” she notes, “but depend on which statue and what history you’re talking about.” Their futures, she argues, should always open to debate.
Most of her subjects are a bit more nuanced than Hitler and his ilk. Von Tunzelmann explores, for example, why protesters in Portland, Ore., pulled down a statue of George Washington in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. But we also join the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956 as they topple the Joseph Stalin statue in Budapest (which the Soviets chose not to replace after they crushed the rebellion). In the Dominican Republic, a mob tore down and beheaded dictator Rafael Trujillo’s statue shortly after his 1961 assassination; it stood before a grand colonnaded monument to himself that has been repurposed to honor soldiers who fought for independence from Spain. And a statue of Lenin was erected in Kyiv in 1946 to celebrate the retaking of the city from Nazi invaders, but it was torn down by masked protesters in 2013, by which time he had become a symbol of Russia, independent Ukraine’s greatest adversary.
As von Tunzelmann also demonstrates, new ideals often arise long before the statues representing old ones can be brought down. Imagine the selective amnesia required to honor King Leopold II of Belgium, who presided over the deaths of some 10 million at the turn of the 20th century in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. His regime was so brutal — symbolized by buckets of hands severed from rubber-plantation workers who failed to reach quotas — it prompted the creation of a new term, “crimes against humanity.”
Yet Leopold’s statue still stands in the Place du Trone in Brussels, seat of the European Union. It’s regularly doused with red paint, but as recently as 2015 the city tried to hold “an homage” to the king in that square. Yet Congolese historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is quoted expressing ambivalence about the fate of the statue. “Gestures and statements change nothing in the DRC,” he argues. “The people of the Congo want redistributive justice and reparations, both for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors and the present consequences of Leopold’s legacy in their country.”
This claim — that change in the present is more meaningful than attacks on icons of the past — raises an essential point in the fight over historical memory: The implications often transcend symbolism. “Ultimately, it is easy to pull down a statue — or to put one up,” von Tunzelmann writes. “To make real reparations for the past is a much greater challenge.”
But symbols matter, and toppling a statue is often a powerful statement: the end of a regime or an empire, or simply of averting the community’s gaze from atrocities and abominations perpetrated by the subject. Humans being human, this can be a step backward, and “Fallen Idols” would have been stronger with a chapter on, say, how French revolutionaries replaced Louis XV’s statue in Paris with the guillotine and a (plaster) seated Liberty, or how the statue of Russian secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky, toppled in Moscow in 1991, was un-toppled after Vladimir Putin consolidated control of the country.
Statues are hulking barometers of the values of society around them. In authoritarian countries those values are imposed from above. But in a democracy, von Tunzelmann makes clear, the public has the right to continually reassess and judge them, and perhaps find them wanting.
Twelve Statues That Made History
Alex von Tunzelmann
320 pp. $26.99