As a tourist, it’s hard to avoid statues and monuments. They are the first things a foreign visitor tends to be taken to see, because they showcase the region’s or the nation’s history, identity, and cultural heritage. For my part, I am more interested in going to parks, street markets, bookshops, and even supermarkets—the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life—for an insight into the history and culture of a place; but as I said, sometimes one simply can’t avoid a monument or two. After all, who would think of visiting northern India without visiting the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum and the Emperor Shah Jehan’s unforgettable monument to love (and power)? Who would visit London without taking in Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s (pigeon-populated) Column, that monument to British naval supremacy? Or Big Ben, that monument to British dominance over Time itself? Since I’ve been staying in Bremen, Germany for the past two weeks, I couldn’t leave without visiting the city’s Marktplatz, or Market Square, where the famous Statue of Roland (erected in 1404) occupies pride of place, and it didn’t disappoint.
Roland is a legendary figure in Europe. It is thought that the historical Roland was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne charged with defending Francia’s border against the Bretons, who fought the Moors in Spain in Charlemagne’s army and died in 778 in a battle with Christian Basque rebels. Ever since, however, the figure of Roland has been appropriated as a chivalric hero (as in La Chanson de Roland) to represent different struggles, against the Saracens (a group of people who lived near Roman-controlled Arabia, later used to refer to Arabs, and later still—inaccurately—to all Muslims), or more generally, against threats to a state’s sovereignty. In Germany, it seems, Roland came to symbolize the freedom of cities from the control of feudal rulers, and a statue of Roland in the city’s marketplace was a gesture of defiance. So it was with the Roland of the Free Hansteatic City of Bremen, which has long prided itself on its independence. Fine, so far, so good, it would seem. But monuments can also present problems, especially in modern democracies.
A monument is erected to commemorate an important person or event. The word itself comes from the Latin monere: ‘to remind’, ‘to advise,’ or ‘to warn. So a people might want to commemorate a leader who had laid down his or her life for the country’s independence or a military engagement, whether winning or losing, that reminds the people of the history that made them what they are. The problem with monuments is that unless the nation is 100% homogeneous in every respect, there will always be competing versions of history, proud victors and humiliated vanquished in every battle, groups historically represented as “Them” or “Other” who might better be welcomed into the “We,” the collective self of the contemporary nation.
I will always remember the French philosopher-historian Ernst Renan’s famous speech, What Is a Nation? (1882). In it, he identified the glue that most successfully unifies a nation not as collective memory, but as forgetting. As he put it:
Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality; the union of northern France with the Midi was the result of massacres and terror lasting for the best part of a century.
A nation or collectivity naturally wants to remember historical atrocities lest they be repeated by future generations. Germany, for example, must remember the Holocaust, or Shoah; as must the Jewish people themselves. The United States and the other participants in the Transatlantic Slave Trade must remember the days of slavery; as must the members of the global African diaspora. There are always those who seek to deny or forget such atrocities to shore up their own power in the present, and their effort to sweep them under the rug must be resisted. But then there are countries such as South Africa emerging from the long, hard struggle against Apartheid, who must find a way to move forward as a non-racial nation without being paralyzed by the poison of hate. In such cases, initiatives like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission try to work through a process of remembering, of bearing witness, to find a measure of forgiveness that will make national reconciliation possible—without driving all the white people who upheld apartheid into the sea.
Here, then, in a nutshell, is the problem with monuments. There is almost always an agenda, an ideology, behind them, and an attempt to assert sovereignty or supremacy. As they seek to unite their nation or group behind a dominant ideology, they tend to simultaneously exclude and alienate others by designating them as the enemy. It is no accident that most monuments are monoliths, tributes to masculinist power. For those who feel victimized or disenfranchised, such symbols inevitably serve as invitations to defy that power. Hence the attractiveness of Bob Marley’s lines:
If you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down
Nowadays after a traumatic national event, there is generally a debate as to how best to memorialize the event in a thoughtful manner that recognizes the enormity of the event but does not perpetuate the polarization, creating more conflict and inviting further retaliation. A case in point was the national debate in the United States on how best to memorialize the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.
As I prepare to bid farewell to Bremen, I must say that, for me, the Statue of Roland, standing in the middle of the public thoroughfare, benevolently conveyed Bremen’s pride in its historical and continuing spirit of independence, and I’m glad that I paid a visit to it. But I still preferred my walks in Bremen’s Bürgerpark as a glorious living example of this city-state’s public spiritedness.
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