Over the past few years, as statues honoring Confederate soldiers have been removed, social media, and now the President, have been aflutter with calls of “where will it end?” and “it’s gone too far.”
But before you nod in agreement with that, consider Germany. Across the pond, there are no statutes of Hitler, or Goebbels, or Goering, or even of less-maligned, but still awful, figures such as Rommel. The question, then, is should there be?
To address this, one has to have an idea of what statues are for—why we build them, and the people and ideas that they represent. Aside from statues found in cemeteries or in public memorials, public statuary is usually celebratory. The poses are triumphant, the dedications exultant, they make it clear that the person depicted was worthy of praise and a role model to follow. A hero.
This is exactly why Germany doesn’t have statues of figures from the Third Reich. The Allies, fresh from fighting Hitler’s fanatics at the close of the European Theater of the war, immediately instigated a process of denazification, which aimed to classify citizens to determine just how involved they were in the Nazi regime. In theory, those who were prominent in Nazi culture were to be banned from holding public office later, at a minimum, or even jailed. Those involved in war crimes were subject to trial.
In reality, the denazification process was lenient, to put it mildly. In the end, the vast majority of soldiers who committed war crimes were never indicted, let alone tried, and many Nazis even held public office. Others, including those responsible for the worst atrocities of the war, escaped justice entirely or managed to hide out for decades before being captured. Despite its many failures, one of the main lessons of denazification took hold: The Germans do not celebrate the Third Reich. There’s even a word for this, Vergangenheitsbewältigung: the process of coming to terms with one’s past. While Nazi adherents and the far right certainly still exist in Germany, the Nazi movement is largely shunned by the wider population.
So let us consider Robert E. Lee, the supposed “gentleman soldier” of the South. Robert E. Lee led a foreign army against the country he had sworn to defend. In itself, that’s treason. Worse yet, he did so in an attempt to save slavery, which along with the genocide that we perpetrated on American Indians, is our nation’s original sin.
Lee, of course, was invested in the institution of slavery himself. He married into a family that owned many slaves—and which traced its lineage back to Martha Washington—and in his efforts to prop up the family’s estate, he split up slave families, becoming infamous for beating slaves or ordering them to be beaten on his behalf. (He was especially severe with slaves that had attempted to escape.) That description alone should be enough to take the statues down.
After Appomattox and the Confederate surrender, there was no process to de-radicalize the Confederates or bar them from public office. If the radicals of Reconstruction had their way, perhaps there would have been or at least some social opprobrium tied to the Confederacy. Instead, veterans from the Confederacy, even those involved in outright massacres, returned to the general population, and kept striving to achieve their bigoted world view. (As proof, a group of Confederate veterans helped form one of the first branches of the Ku Klux Klan.) And we know what followed on the whole: lynching, voter disenfranchisement, segregation, Jim Crow, the Birther movement, and last week, the debacle at Charlottesville.
So tear the statues down. Only heroes belong on pedestals. Lee is no hero. He was a traitor, like the rest of the Confederates. The statues of their generals, and their regimental battle flags are important, and they are history, but they do not deserve the honor of public display. They need context, explanation, and explication.
Lee, like the rest of the Confederate South, embodies one of our greatest mistakes and belongs in a museum.