Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but ...

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks
What does a people do with monuments from a fallen state? And, whose business is it?

On the one hand, monuments are a part of history, and in general we seek to preserve history for its own sake. On the other hand, we also should not like to elevate bits of history that we find repugnant. So a common suggestion is that monuments be placed in a museum.

The people of Bulgaria have had occasion to consider this suggestion. Bulgaria's communist government fell shortly after the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union. Bulgaria is littered with communist-era statues, many commemorating Soviet soldiers and leaders, as well as Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Understandably, many Bulgarians strongly prefer not to honor the violence and horror of communism by keeping these statues in the public space. But they would also not erase their history, even such a dark chapter of it. Perhaps, then, they may be put away in a museum?

Yet here are the perspectives of two Bulgarians about their monuments:
"What kind of museum? Who are going to be the curators? Who are going to be the people who collect the memorabilia or artifacts and how are they going to present them? Because those people are ashamed of their own past. How are they going to put something in a museum?"
("Buzludzha: A crumbling reminder of communism," The Economist (Oct. 20, 2014) at 3:50 (available at
"I don't think that people should be ashamed of anything related to its history because that's the meaning of history. We should learn it, and if it was a mistake or something, we should make sure that we don't repeat the mistake. So maybe it could stay there as a monument of the shame of our past, but in order to make us think better about the future."
(Id. at 4:20.)

I am inclined to adopt the perspectives of these Bulgarians, coming, as they are, from people whose ears are still trained to hear the foul notes of totalitarianism. Monuments are interactive history. In a museum, they are merely an exhibit -- static, dead. In a short time I expect with a virtual-reality headset one will be able to get the same experience by browsing the exhibit on Wikipedia. A monument is different from an exhibit. A monument shares a people's space. They pass it on the way to work. They pass it on the way to school. They might meet friends at a monument. That may protest a monument -- or celebrate it. Detractors might scrawl on a monument. Supporters may knock the scribblers down. And people might decide to dress up the monuments. Through these joint activities, a monument takes on new meaning, and its history merges into the present. A people finds a way to bring past values it abhors up to date with present values, without erasing its history, or losing its identity. Only by conserving one's past is progress possible.

Other people, living far away, even in different countries, may have an opinion on another people's monuments. For example, Bulgarians in Sofia apparently enjoy painting and dressing up the Monument of the Soviet Army for different occasions. After one such incident, Russia tendered a stern statement to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, issuing a "demand for taking measures to prevent such incidents in the future." Russia's wish, obviously, is to impose its view of monuments in Bulgaria upon the Bulgarian people who live with the monuments. Perhaps the treatment of the Sofia monument is vulgar. But that's nobody's business but the Bulgars'.

Here in the U.S., some House Democrats released a funding bill that calls for the removal of any statues “depicting any individuals who served as members of the Confederacy” or of “military forces of a State against the United States.” These statutes are predominantly in southern states. The House Appropriations Committee that released this bill is headed by a representative from New York, and only a very small minority of the Democratic membership are from southern states.

Like Russia's pronunciamento in Bulgaria, these House Democrats wish to impose their view of southern monuments upon southern people who live with the monuments.

In response, the White House released this statement:
“These statues are silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal. They preserve the memory of our American story and stir in us a spirit of responsibility for the chapters yet unwritten. These works of art call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, their talents, and their lives in the service of our Nation."
The White House response is very Bulgarian in outlook. I am inclined to think that is a good outlook to have when it comes to monuments.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Historiography is history too. The perception is at least part of the reality.

annademo said...

I can't remember which Eastern European country it was, but I remember seeing a once proud Socialist building left to rot. And rot it has. A perfect symbol of Socialism. Rotten to the core.

Tim Kowal said...

Might well be the Buzludzha in Bulgarian:

JonRobert said...

Gresham's Law. The bad drives out the good.
Mensheviks/Bolsheviks. aaaand

kkollwitz said...

As Mao might have said, "Let a hundred referenda bloom."

furious_a said...

The Russian War Memorial in Vienna is obscured by a large fountain the Austrians built in front of it to block it being visible from the Ringstrasse.