New Orleans is grappling with the tricky issue of what to do with statues of the prominent Confederate leaders (Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard) displayed prominently in public spaces. Is it appropriate to hang on to a public culture of memory that gives pride of place to people who were slaveholders, defended slavery and were racists at heart?
New Orleans and the formerly Confederate South are not the only places in the world dealing with the issue of an appropriate memorialization and public memory for embarrassing periods in their past. Apart from commemorating the Holocaust in numerous concentration camp memorials, Germany has wiped out the memory of the Nazi period — what has been called its “unmasterable past.” No statues of Rommel or Göring are on display in public squares in Germany. Rabbi Joachim Prinz explicitly connected the German past and Southern race relations. A German Jew who had been a bystander during the Holocaust, Prinz, speaking just before Martin Luther King at the 1963 Washington, D.C., rally, urged Americans not to repeat the sin of indifference and neutrality when facing “the disgraceful brutality” of segregation.
Maybe Hungarian memory of its Communist era (1945/1947–1989) is a useful example to learn from. The Hungarian government established the “Statue Park” (also called “Memento Park”) on the outskirts of Budapest. Forty-two of the nation’s most emblematic and impressive socialist monuments are on display there, among them the “Tribute to Stalin’s Boots.” The architect tried to capture the “paradoxical nature” of these monuments in the past and present, as they are “the reminders of an anti-democratic society and at the same time pieces of our history.”
So the past was not destroyed (as many wanted to do away with these monumental socialist realist statues), but it was relocated to the periphery of the Hungarian capital. People who refuse to give up their infatuation with totalitarian communism and want to marvel at the Socialist past may go to Memento Park and do so.
Austria is another example where a nation faced the longevity of the commemoration of an obnoxious past. A few years ago, Vienna renamed one of the best-known sections of the inner-city ring road from “Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring” to “Universitäts-Ring.” The leader of the Christian Social Party, Karl Lueger, served as the mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910. He was a very popular and progressive mayor and made Vienna into the modern municipality it is today. But he also was a populist and anti-Semitic. Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna for a while during Lueger’s time as mayor, admired him for his outspoken anti-Semitism. In a different time and era, Vienna no longer wanted to give Lueger pride of place in one of its most prominent public arenas. So the name of this section of the ring road was changed to “University Ring” (the main building of the University of Vienna is situated there). At the same time, a historian’s commission was launched to study and rename all the questionable street names in the city. Streets named after anti-Semites, racists, or former Nazis were renamed. It became, literally, a “street cleaning” of the past.
What kind of lessons might be drawn from these European examples of a proper public commemoration of the past? In order to master a past that is offensive — such as the antebellum and Confederate South with its traditions of slavery and racism — you need to deal with it sensitively. What is offensive to some people holds nostalgic value to others.
Why not gather Gen. Lee’s and Gen. Beauregard’s statues and relocate them to a quasi-theme park of Confederate heroes? Such a New Orleans Confederate “Memento Park” could be located in a special place in City Park, or maybe even better, somewhere on the north shore, where much Confederate nostalgia is still alive. People who admire these Confederate heroes may pay their tribute in such a park. But their monuments should not be gracing some of the most prominent public spaces in the city. As the noted historian of Southern Civil War memory W. Fitzhugh Brundage has observed: “We have inherited a commemorative landscape from our ancestors but that doesn’t mean that we can’t reshape it to meet our own contemporary needs.”
Günter Bischof is the Marshall Plan Professor of History and Director of Center Austria at the University of New Orleans.