Not set in stone

So (to pick up from last week’s blog, ‘A Matter of Judgment’), if we should be cautious in condemning people whose beliefs, while anathema to us today, were widespread in their own time and place, what should we do with the statues that were raised to them? Do we allow a stony Cecil John Rhodes to preside over Oriel College, Oxford, or a brassy Robert E Lee to have pride of place in Charlottesville, or in many other towns of the old Confederacy?  

And who exactly is the ‘we’ in the last sentence? If I think the statues should stay and you think they should go, who gets to decide? Do we organise a vote on the issue? Is the past allowed a say in the vote? Is the future?

At one extreme is the heritage argument – that they should all stay. It has some validity, but there is a limit to it. One cannot seriously argue, for example, that there would be nothing wrong in having a statue of Adolf Hitler in Berlin. The mere fact of making that statement illustrates the fact that public statues reflect not just the mores of another age, but the values of this one. At the other extreme, if every group of people who objected strongly to a particular statue succeeded in getting it taken down, what statues would remain?

There is also an artistic dimension to the issue. Statues can be great works of art, even if the ones under dispute may not have been. What if van Dyke or Gainsborough had been able to paint Hitler? Would it be acceptable to hang such a portrait in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, but not to have a statue of comparable artistic merit in the public space outside? And what about the church bell in Herxheim am Berg, inscribed with a swastika and Hitler’s name? Is that a monument, or just a church bell?

If one tries to go down the middle road, one is faced with an unanswerable question: how bad does a person need to have been, how indefensible their actions nowadays, for their statue to be taken down? We may be able to agree on Hitler, but perhaps not on Stalin. According to Ben Macintyre, at least a dozen Stalins have reappeared in Russian cities since 2012, along with a handful of Lenins.

This is a particularly pertinent question where Robert E Lee is concerned. Lee, by common consent outside the southern states of America, fought on the wrong side of history. Yet he can still be thought a thoroughly decent man, as well as an outstanding general. Although from a slave-owning family, he was not personally a defender of slavery. He opposed the secession of the Confederate states. His conduct during the war was honourable compared with the conduct of many others. Lincoln offered him command of the Union army when the Confederacy was formed. Only when his home state of Virginia decided to secede, late in the day and after much argument, did Lee throw in his lot with the Confederacy. He decided that his first loyalty was to his own state and he did want to not spend the war killing his friends and family.

Lee’s conduct can be contrasted with that of General Sherman, hero of the North, one of the two generals who won the civil war for the Union. William Tecumseh Sherman was a ruthless soldier and a racist. At the end of the war, he chewed the fat with the Confederate generals he had defeated, lamenting the abolition of slavery. After the war, he was in charge of the army that protected settlers and railway workers in the west from the native Americans. ‘We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux,’ he wrote to Ulysses S Grant at the end of 1866, ‘even to their extermination, men, women and children.’

I admit that I am recounting Sherman’s less savoury aspects, and that there were some admirable ones. Such a dichotomy is not unusual in prominent people and is also relevant to the discussion about statues. However, if personal qualities are to be a criterion, Lee’s credentials are much stronger than Sherman’s. Yet there is a magnificent monument to Sherman in Washington DC and another one near Central Park in New York. I have not heard that anyone is demanding their removal. There is also a Sherman statue in Atlanta, the city whose destruction he brought about. This would be tantamount, with all the nuances, to the British erecting a statue of Air Marshal Arthur Harris in Dresden.

The historian David Olusoga seems to find it as hard as I do to reach firm conclusions on statues. In a recent piece in The Guardian, however, he made a valuable point. Many Confederate statues in the southern states were erected decades after the civil war, some as late as the 1960s. They were put there, not to honour a contemporary hero, but deliberately to humiliate the black population and remind them of their eternal subservience. So it is not only the existence of a statue that merits discussion, but also the motivation of those who erected it and – to take this a step further – the motivation of those who seek either to remove or to retain that statue.

Nor should the question begin and end with statues. What about the names bestowed on schools, or parks, or streets? Take Nathan Bedford Forrest, another Confederate general. Forrest was a mass murderer of black Union prisoners of war after the Battle of Fort Pillow and was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Monuments and statues honouring Forrest remain in dozens of southern cities. High schools in Tennessee and Florida are named after him. When I visited Selma in 2008, shown around the town by one of the victims of Bloody Sunday, I well remember her anger at the fact that a bust of Forrest, removed from a cemetery, was being defiantly replaced by local racists. A few days later, heading north from Selma, I passed the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Tennessee.

History is a subject of perspectives, and there are always more than one. In Britain, many statues were erected during the imperial age and saluted the heroes of Empire. Now, Britain is a multi-racial country, embracing millions of descendants of those the British ruled and, in many cases, oppressed. In today’s world, what is our nation’s history and how should it be expressed?

As David Olusoga pointed out, at least the existence of statues to people such as Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston has prompted a debate about their misdeeds, as well as their deeds. To that extent, the statues perform a useful historical function. They ensure a memory. If the former Soviet Union found it necessary to obliterate street names and all other public reference to the revolutionary heroes who were periodically disgraced, perhaps that is a good reason for us to do the opposite.

I like statues. Books do furnish a room, and statues do furnish a city. Perhaps it would be safer, though, to erect future statues in honour of complete nonentities, or even of fictional characters. In the meantime, I would rather keep most of what we’ve got. But not all of it.