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Leonid Bershidsky

Let Artists Put Controversial Monuments in a New Light

It's not wise to try to erase history, but a little emotional distance is healthy.
Needs more goat.

Needs more goat.

Source: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

As controversy over Confederate monuments raged in the U.S., Americans turned to Europe in search of useful analogies. With so many bloodstained pages in its history books, the old continent is gradually moving beyond the "keep or destroy" dilemma in dealing with what the Germans call materielle Zeugnisse, or material witnesses, of history.

The removal of politically charged statues always seems the practical solution: Get them off public squares and there'll be more peace as various radicals are deprived of rallying points. Memorials, after all, are political statements first and works of art second. The town authorities in Marienfels in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate were relieved in 2004 when unknown people destroyed the memorial to an SS panzer corps, erected in the town in 1971 by a group of its veterans: It had come to be the center of neo-Nazi demonstrations. When no one wants to take the demolition work off a government's hands, it often feels compelled to act as the Baltic States did with Soviet statues that had focused the protest energy of pro-Russian minorities. No city or country wants a Charlottesville on its hands.