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Lest we forget. The remembrance issues with historical monuments

The statue of an old man has a rope around its neck. Two men pull the rope, a third one is cutting the rods inside the plinth. The statue falls on a bunch of old tires without making a sound. They hug each other, place children's clothes on the statue and leave.

The monument that fell was the one of a roman-catholic priest Henryk Jankowski, who passed away ten years ago. And who was accused of child sexual abuse.

Did the removal of the monument change anything about Jankowski and our perception of him? Or was it merely an expression of the change in historical perspective regarding his person? The perception that the destruction of monuments is altering history comes from the assumption that the history we know is objective and well-informed. If it was not, destruction of monuments would not be an act of fabricating or erasing history, but simply a mere addition of new historical facts to see ‘the bigger picture.' The subjectivity of history might help unpack the blurry line between remembrance and celebration, and show why some monuments do not belong in the public sphere.

The question of celebration

The discourse on monument-destroying rose in popularity with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, closely tied with the decolonising discourse from which the initial Rhodes Must Fall movement drew. Calls for the removal of monuments of slave owners have met with a varied response. What is interesting, however, are the awkward attempts to bring to light problematic historical figures’ multidimensional personalities. ‘They did a lot of other good stuff too,’ some would say. We all make mistakes, right?

Does that mean we should remember the figures for the good deeds they did, or for the bad cards in their history? Are we judged by our best qualities, or by our worst? The answer might be simpler if we consider that monuments are not just a mere act of remembrance but as an act of celebration. Just like naming the streets does not serve a pure historical purpose, building the monuments is to honour the person in question. It is, in fact, quite literally - a celebration, placing someone on a pedestal. While we cannot celebrate only a chunk of a person, but do so in their entirety; it’s one thing to remember, and another to celebrate people with skeletons in their closets.

The many faces of historical erasure

Several people, including university professors, suggest that removing monuments is an attempt to erase history. An attempt to rewrite it. However, history is being constantly re-written anyway. The information we can access, our perspective, our ability to judge, those who write or who are allowed to write and publish — these all change with time. Hence, nowadays you might struggle to find the once so popular monuments of Soviet dictators in Poland. The Polish government does not even want to see any streets named after people associated with the regime. Is this the erasure of history, or is it nothing but a mere removal of shameful past from spaces of celebration and appreciation?

The people of Poland have definitely not forgotten; the political discourse is still buzzing with remnants of the past regime, political affiliations from the period and consequences of decisions made before the democratisation started. Decolonisation, decommunisation, even de-monumentation — whatever we want to call it — of the public space is no different from any other attempts to move on and cut ties with a history we are not proud of. It does not mean forgetting, but - not celebrating. Putting this history behind us, learning from mistakes that were made and focusing on creating a better present. The memory of the past will not fade with the dilapidating plinths.

The inconvenient past and its temporality

Changing the collective memory is not achieved through the mere existence of a monument or a lack of thereof. The empty plinths will not make us forget. If anyone is truly worried about remembering, we can, for the sake of remembrance, have monuments commemorating the victims. And frankly, we do; there are monuments to remember the victims of Holocaust, Srebrenica, those who died during Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, victims of the Ukrainian famine. And just like the painful memories of Holocaust will not fade without the traumatising reminders of war criminals who brought the suffering, our collective memory will not forget any other atrocity only because we do not see war criminals made out of bronze around every corner.

Considering statues as existing to commemorate those who we deem worthy of respect, the ones who deserve it are the ones who suffered at the hands of the people we learn about in school. Furthermore, our perception of statue-worthiness is temporal, and so are the monuments; they do not exist in the vacuum, nor are stuck in a historical period. They exist in the present, just like those who make decisions to keep or remove these monuments. Once new insights come to light, we are allowed to — even more, encouraged — to change our minds on who we deem admirable. There is no need for the historical villains to be celebrated, but there will always be a need for their victims to not be forgotten.

Instead of talking about spraying or vandalising the monuments, I prefer the term updating. History is alive and made in the present; the change or removal of some statue is historical just as much as putting it there was in the first place. The historical value of vandalising or removing monuments lies in its actuality. It represents the change of political and social moods in contemporary society, standing for the current political climate and societal conflicts. The new layer of spray paint shows a historical and cultural revolution. From an anthropological perspective, it is history in the making. It allows us to understand the processes our society goes through in terms of disenfranchising certain figures and events from the ‘admirable’ parts of our histories. The history is written by the winners. Or, in many cases: by those who survive. To assume a monument represents the final and objective truth is to discredit the lived experiences of the many. Not only that, but it implies that the act of monument building is free from the political and cultural context in which it came to existence.

A history re-written

The famous monument of John Paul II holding a rock, or the less-known monument of Lech Kaczyński – they have been designed and placed with a certain agenda. When considering their historical value, we need to be asking the question on why do we have these monuments? Why are we celebrating certain figures over the others? Why now and with what purpose? After answering these questions, we might find it difficult to look at the bronze figures with the same air of neutrality as before. They are deeply set in their political and historical reality and rarely present an objective, agenda-free and timeless history. Timeless history rarely exists; it is bound by its contexts. How many monuments does Kamil Baczyński — a young socialist, Warsaw Uprising veteran and a poet, have in Warsaw? The de-monumentation of a socialist, PPS-led army soldier, who died in 1943 while saving the lives of British pilots detained in Jaworzno can be yet another clue in understanding the political, rather than the historical, behind putting up and removing monuments.

The vandalising acts are hence a form of grassroot action to politically update the monuments. For a matter of fact, it is not only quirky activists who update monuments like this. The Mussolini’s monument in Bolzano, Italy is now updated with Hannah Arendt’s quote ‘Nobody has the right to obey’ superimposed on the stone. We might need to rethink the distinction between vandalism and artful update at some point. But for now, let’s stop and think about Arendt’s quote. We have the responsibility to change things we have an influence on, and indifference towards remnants of history is one of such things.

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