Statues topple as national identity and global values change Part II: Statues falling in Europe

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Siegesallee in Berlin, 1903 or before. In the foreground is the statue commemorating Albrecht II (c. 1150-1220), fourth Margrave of Brandenburg. (Photo: Album Von Berlin, 44 Ansichten Und Momentaufnahmen In Photographiedruck, Globus Verlag, Berlin 1903)

IO – Status are torn down or removed for various reasons. One of them is through war. In Germany after the Second World War the Allies ordered the removal of monuments to Germany’s national and military character. In the Spandau area of Berlin numerous such statues have been relegated to a 16th century fortress known as the Citadel. Many of them were originally located on the Siegesallee a boulevard in the Tiergarten area of Berlin. In 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II extended the Siegesallee or Victory Boulevard and placed many statues there of German historical leaders lining both sides of the boulevard. It was an imperial project that was intended to display both German power and prestige. The over 100 statues in the Citadel that were neither destroyed but are also not revered, are now on display to the public. The statues mostly encompass Germany’s imperial past although there are a few from the Nazi (such as a church bell with a swastika on it) and Cold War (a severed head of Lenin) period. 

The Allies intention after the War was to allow a new Germany to be built up based on democratic principles completely different to its past values and the removal of Nazi as well as imperial monuments celebrating power and war was a part of that effort for they understood that statues reflect the values and identity of a nation. Dr Heinrich Seemann former German ambassador to Indonesia says that during the Cold War the Communists also tried to obliterate German identity in their efforts to create a Communist state in East Germany. This is why there are also Cold War statues at the Citadel. 

 After the George Floyd case and the tearing down of statues in America and the Black Lives Matter movement, Dr Werner Kraus who is the director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Art in Passau says, “Yes we are having a discussion about history and historical representation here as well but since we discharged the Nazi monuments after 1945 and the Stalinist monuments after 1989, and since German colonial history was very short and left almost no statues, the problem here is a minor one.” 

The statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square brought down on April 9, 2003. (Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org /wiki/file:saddamstatue.jpg /us department of defense/)

Another famous statue removed as a consequence of war was Sadam Hussein’s statue on Firdos Square in Baghdad after the Battle of Baghdad in 2003. On April 9th 2003 a group of Iraqis unsuccessfully tried to tear down the statue of Sadam Husseim in Firdos Square – including an attempt with a sledge hammer by Iraqi weightlifter Kadhem Sharif. Not long there after an advance unit of the United States Marine Corps arrived and helped to topple the statue with an M88 armored recovery vehicle. Later like the Allies in Germany after the War, the new interim authorities in Iraq wanted to help creates a new Iraq with democratic values grow in place of Sadam Hussein’s Iraq. They chose Iraqi artist Bassem Hamad al-Dawirito to create a new statue to replace the one of Sadam Hussein. Bassem was a member of the artists’ association “The Survivors” which has created sculptures all over Iraq. His sculpture depicted branches reaching towards the Iraqi sky with a ball balancing on a crescent moon symbolize the unity of the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Some have said the sculpture was meaningless considering the sectarian violence which has engulfed Iraq since 2003 but nation building is a slow and painful process and peace and unity remain ideals worthy of Iraq’s pursuit. Nevertheless, the al-Dawiri statue was removed in 2013 and replaced with a statue to the unknown soldier. 

In Western Europe the statues torn down are mostly those of slavers or colonialists who also exploited people. Without placing colonialism and even more so slavery in its proper context as something not to be proud of but to look at with shame true equality between the races will never be fully accomplished. Colonialism at its bare bones is when a country by use of arms forces another country to allow it to exploit the wealth of that country without giving its people the right of self-determination. A pride in a colonial past and a sweeping under the carpet of the horrors and suffering of slavery is what lies behind so much of the abuse and discrimination towards the descendants of slaves and former colonialized peoples. It is probably one of the main reasons for Brexit for example, a choice that makes no real economic or political sense from a global perspective. 

From the monument to King Leopold II of Belgium at Oostend. In the detail is visible that the hand of a figure has been sawn off in protest at the atrocities committed in the Congo in King Leopold II’s name. Photo taken in 2005.

In Belgium statues of King Leopold II have been defaced or removed. Leopold II declared the Congo his personal property between 1885 and 1908 which resulted in the killing and maiming of millions of Congolese by his troops. On June 30th 2020 the current Belgian King Philippe wrote to the President of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, “I want to express my deepest regret for these past injuries, the pain of which is regularly revived by the discrimination that is still all too present in our societies,” to which Congolese Foreign Minister responded, “Through King Philippe, Belgium has laid the foundation of a profound change.” 

The Belgian parliament will launch a reconciliation commission to address racism and the country’s colonial past. Meanwhile, in Britain Black Lives Matter protestors tore down the statue of Bristol’s benefactor and town patron, Edward Colston whose role in the enslavement of around 84,000 people in the 17th century is undisputed. His ships transported tens of thousands of men, women and children between 1672 and 1689 from Africa to the Americas. In the 19th century the statue was erected to mark his philanthropy. After tearing the statue down it was then thrown into Bristol Harbour. In Oxford, Oriel College has said that it wants to remove the image of Cecil Rhodes who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa, from the facade of the college. 

Statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in Hoorn, the Netherlands.
The sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff
created it in 1887.
(Photo: eintacht4ever/
https://commons.wikimedia.org
/wiki/file:jan_pieterszoon_coen_
statue.jpg#/media/file:
jan_pieterszoon_coen_statue)

For Indonesia the fate of the statues of two men are of special interest. The first is that of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the founder of Batavia who massacred the Banda islanders in the Moluccas in the 17th century in order to obtain a monopoly on the trade in nutmeg. The removal of the statue has been discussed for years in the Netherlands with intermittent protests. Should the statue be torn down or at least removed? 

Dr Hendrik E. Niemeijer, a Dutch historian of Early Modern History from the University of Leiden states, “Coen’s statue and other such statues are the expression of typical 19th century European nationalism. As such they have no function anymore other than to explain to the public that they are nationalist expressions. Tearing down such statues is an expression of typical present day protest groups against slavery and race discrimination. Both of these groups don’t know much of the early 17th century context. By always repeating the Banda drama was a “genocide” they show themselves not competent to understand it was a classic “conquest” following the rules of war (declaration) of that time. If it had not been Coen it would have been a more competent VOC military commander, or a Brit. 

Coen after all was a super bookkeeper (educated in Rome) who spent years in Banten to re-organize the VOC’s financial system that made it the world’s first modern multinational. For that he deserves a statue, in the context of economic history.” 

Although Werner Kraus says he understands Niemeijer’s arguments he disagrees, “I would remove Coen’s statue right away. We are not dealing here with questions of historical fact or correctness but with a very emotional reinterpretation of our approach to European dominance. Coen stands for me (and most Indonesians) as a symbol for Dutch rule in the Archipelago. I read his statue not as a symbol of Dutch nationalism but as a symbol of European hegemony – and the time has come to finally reflect on that.” 

Kia Mahdi a Dutch national of Indonesian descent feels far more passionately about Niemeijer’s words, “The fact is that a genocide did occur and I am appalled that a Dutch historian would try to defend that through academic acrobatics. Niemeijer is basically saying that a statue to a super bookkeeper who helped create multi-nationals is more important than the destruction of a people and their culture.” 

Meanwhile, Mita Alwi the granddaughter of the last Orang Kaya of Banda is surprisingly wise and forgiving in her response to Niemeijer, “Unbelievable! Clearly he and his ancestors weren’t the victims. Unfortunately, we will hear these kind of comments. I mean even if it was a ‘classic’ conquest, it doesn’t mean it was right.” 

Nevertheless, she feels, “The statue should not be pulled down but kept as a reminder of history. There should be a clear carved statement below it to say that the Dutch are not proud of this man and the real history of this massacre should be clearly provided as a reminder to people to learn and to be kind to one another. If taken down the younger generation will have less interest in finding out the truth. Let’s make sure history is far behind us. Let us avoid violence. Let this statue be a reminder of this to us.” 

Lord Baden Powell the founder of the scouts’ movement, in Poole United Kingdom. (Photo: david dixon/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file:robert_baden-powell_statue,_ )poole_quay_(geograph_3269460)

The second man whose statues are of special interest to Indonesia is Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the scouts’ movement in Britain who was an imperialist over whose military career there is controversy. There are over 54 million scouts worldwide of whom 21,5 million are Indonesia. Indonesians love the scouts’ movement which has provided adventure, learning and joy to millions of Indonesian school children. It has also been an important instrument to help unify the nation and spread the ideals of the Youth Pledge of 1928 (See: https://observerid.com/ the-youth-pledge-of-1928-a-day-for-millennials/ ) as well as assist in the struggle for independence (See: https://observerid.com/ indonesian-national-scouts-day-more-scouts-in-indonesia-than-anywhere-else-on-earth-a-critical-look/ ). 

Not all statues of men or women connected to slavery or colonialism should be removed and Oxford historian, Dr Peter Carey provides the following guidelines, “My views are that first of all, no statues should be destroyed but some are really not appropriate to have on public display and should be in museums because by having statues in public spaces you are saying: this is a great woman/man and someone worthy of emulation – I don’t think slave traders fall into this category but the slave trade was a fact of life which contributed greatly to Britain’s rise as a commercial power in the 18th century and the story should be told in the history books and museums dedicated to this topic and that is where Edward Colston’s statue should go. 

Secondly, there are statues of quite controversial figures such as Baden Powell who had a chequered military career in South Africa and in Churchill’s case the use of chemical weapons on Kurds. Their statues should remain but with a text at the base of the monument stating why there is controversy. 

Thirdly, there are state criminals like King Leopold II of Belgium who was personally responsible for a genocide of the most horrendous kind in the former Belgain Congo… There needs to be a national seminar with all the statues going into a special museum along the theme of Pieter Geyl’s great book Napoleon: For and Against and the Belgian public should have the opportunity to come to their own conclusions privately…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read:
Part I : https://observerid.com/statues-topple-national-identity-and-global-values-change-part-i-statues-falling-in-america/