The question of Confederate monuments – around which neo-Nazis gathered one year ago Sunday in Charlottesville, Virginia – remains unresolved. Should Americans eliminate the memorials to Confederate generals and soldiers the way Germany eliminated monuments to Nazis? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. In fact, Germany’s battle over the commemorative landscape provides a stark lesson in this regard.
The presence of Nazi leaders and ideology remains embedded in monuments, street names and church bells of Germany. And Nazi monuments have emboldened modern-day neo-Nazis and the troubling Reichsbürger, a political movement whose goal is to overthrow the modern German state, providing a rallying place for people eager to reclaim Nazi history and assert its contemporary relevance.
The tale of the Kriegerdenkmal, a military memorial in Hamburg, reveals that reconciliation with the darkest chapters of our past is a constant battle that requires an honest and open dialogue that produces accurate monuments, not simply a proliferation of dueling monuments.
In March 1936, Nazi leaders, along with military and veterans organizations, unveiled Richard Kuöhl’s Kriegerdenkmal in a high-profile dedication ceremony. The monument’s location was purposefully selected for the high volume of traffic passing by the nearby Dammtor Station.
Roughly 29 feet long, 13 feet wide and 23 feet high, made from shell-bearing limestone, the monument features marching soldiers on three sides to remember Hamburg’s soldiers from the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Above the soldiers is a poem about the farewell of soldiers, instilling the idea that soldiers have to perish for the country to survive.
With war on the horizon for Nazi Germany, the message of the monument was clear: Sacrifice was noble and expected.
The monument reflected the celebration of militarism in Nazi Germany. After World War I, monuments to fallen soldiers had appeared across Germany. After the Nazi takeover in 1933, these monuments grew in symbolism. Monuments called for courage, willingness to fight and confidence in victory, marked by symbols such as eagles and swords.
After World War II, the Allied powers attempted to eradicate all monuments to Nazism in Germany. The Allied Control Council mandated the removal of all monuments, museums, statues, structures or plaques that celebrated German militarism or Nazism. They saw these as nurturing German militarism, which many allied leaders thought had helped spur two devastating wars in a 30-year period.
And yet the Kriegerdenkmal “war block” remained because its meaning and symbolism were more ambiguous. For some Germans, it assumed a new meaning of sacrifice related to the Cold War. But it also offered a rallying point for neo-Nazis and veterans groups, many of them with right-wing political identities. Some organizations praised the monument as a symbol of German soldiery. Vandals repeatedly sprayed graffiti on the monument, forcing the police to protect and the city to clean it.
When the local governing council decided to remove the militaristic poem, the Springer Verlag newspaper chain started a campaign against the removal of “Germany” from the monument. A right-wing initiative formed. Eventually, the city’s senate decided to leave the monument unaltered.
By the 1980s, the debate over removal had subsided. Instead, civic leaders pushed to change the landscape around the memorial. Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka won a competition to determine what to do with the space by proposing several monuments to address the impact of war on the civilian population and the suffering of war refugees. Planned third and fourth parts of the monument on Nazi justice and women remain undelivered.
The result is that the Kriegerdenkmal is now a site with a monument and counter-monuments, creating a public commemorative landscape that offers something for all sides, while also serving as a provocation for all sides as well. Neo-Nazi rallies continue to occur at the Kriegerdenkmal to celebrate Germany’s military past and calls for a revival of Nazism. On the other side, peace activists have gathered at the monument to protest war.
The already busy monument landscape at Hamburg’s Dammtor got even more complicated when the city decided in 2012 to add a monument to deserters who were shot by the Nazi regime. The triangular monument is right behind the Kriegerdenkmal, consisting of two bronze grates in the form of writing. This monument honors the brave men who refused military service or deserted the Nazi-led armies and paid the ultimate price.
The contested memorial landscape around the Kriegerdenkmal should serve as a cautionary tale. Hamburg has done much to memorialize soldiers, the cruelty and suffering of war and those who refused to fight. By leaving the original monument in place, however, as “historical facts (that) can not be removed,” the city also left alive a place for neo-Nazi groups to rally.
This does not mean that all Confederate monuments should be removed from public places. But U.S. leaders should proceed with caution when determining their fate. Building counter-monuments cannot scrub the meaning of the original from a site. As long as the original statues remain in place and serve as a rallying point, alternatives will not serve their intended purpose of making people think about the flaws of the original.
Only after societies honestly face and address the dark eras of their past do monuments and counter-monuments serve their purpose of giving voice to the many voices involved.
Niels Eichhorn is a Civil War historian and assistant professor at Middle Georgia State University.