02 January 2013

Statues of the Past

This is a topic that interests me and it was provoked by an article I retweeted from The View East (which I highly recommend you click and browse!) about Lenin statues in Tajikistan.  As a BA-level trained anthropologist, I have studied the use of symbols and the political and cultural connections of them, which as proved to be a useful analysis tool for eastern Europe.  My infinitely wiser friend, James, sent me an article by Matti Bunzl (my admiration started here) entitled, "On the Politics and Semantics of Austria's Memory: Vienna's Monument against War and Fascism" (Indiana University Press); I have a personal connection to this since I lived only 2 blocks away from that monument and saw it every day.  There's a great deal of research on the topic, including Santino's astounding work on Northern Ireland, and I cannot reference everything I've read on it nor could I do the field of inquiry any justice with my citations.

Europe and central Asia are particularly fascinating places to explore the context of symbols and how their relevance in the midst of sweeping change is debated.  Europe has the unique history of monarchs who wished to leave monuments to their power and reign and the ever oscillating ideas of kingdom, nation, and borders left them abandoned in time, frozen in place to later evoke curiosity, ire, incredulity, romanticized views, or denial.  There are not as many debates about palaces and gigantic fountains simply because those monuments were self-aggrandizing and are more easily commodified as beautiful destinations and/or museums.  I'll illustrate this point with a place I know particularly well: Vienna, the gateway to the east.  Take Schönbrunn - it was meant to be a competitor for Versailles' coveted "Most Ostentatious Palace" European award and is now crawling with tourists who gape at the novelty of a palace and all its treasures.*  No one is particularly upset about its appropriation into Viennese culture and tourism.  It has beautiful grounds, the world's oldest zoo, and the palace is a museum of palatial life, which includes tours explaining each room and the artfully displayed artifacts.

However, do not mention Hrdlicka to a born and bred Viennese.  The simple story is this: Austrians were annexed by Germany and therefore became the enemy to the Allied powers, which lead to the bombing of Vienna.  A bomb hit a building in heart of Vienna, which buried the huddling civilians in the basement.  They were never exhumed.  As we all know, the Axis powers lost and Vienna had to pay part of the price.  Austria still denies the rampant anti-Semitism and general Nazi collaboration (they weren't all von Trapps) and they take great pride in the beauty of their city, in beautiful lifestyles, and culture. To illustrate this point, the woman I lived with was true Viennese--she was married to a Hungarian and, based on her furnishings and paintings, came from old money--and she deliberately put out  miniature pitchers of orange juice and milk for breakfast every morning.  She never put out the juice carton. Ever. Given the Viennese put a high price on appearances and culture, when they commissioned Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka to create a memorial on the site of un-exhumed Viennese civilians, they were hoping it would be pretty or at least palatable.  This turned out not to be the case.  Hrdlicka created a heinous looking series of sculptures entitled, "Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Fascismus" (Monument against War and Fascism).  You can see the hideousness in these Google images.

It sits on Albertinaplatz, in the midst of the Wien Staatsoper, Hotel Sacher, and the Albertina museum.  These are three key places in Viennese culture: they love their opera, their chocolate cake with apricot jelly and ganache afterward, and their most important art museum.  They live for culture and to see a monument condemning them for Nazi collaboration and anti-Semitism (which they refuse to acknowledge) at the heart of what they love, on top of buried victims, was too much.  As an Austrian, Hrdlicka knew the powerful nature of these symbols and its location and chose to expose the darkness living underneath the veneer of beauty and culture.  To this day, it upsets Viennese residents.  It's the thorn in their side and that's precisely what Hrdlicka wanted for that sculpture--to never feel comfortable with their own sins and poor choices.

This lesson in the powerful symbolism of statues and commissioned works takes on increased resonance with former Soviet nations.  How much should they remember? Forget? Agitate their own feelings of Stockholm Syndrome? Celebrate their resilience while remembering their acquiescence?  A quote I have always found salient for CEE post-Soviet discussions is from George Orwell: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."  A friend with his Cambridge master's degree in history told me, history is always evolving based on the narrator.

Nations have dealt with the narrative of statues differently.  East Germany had all their Marxist statues plucked out as soon as the coast was clear.  Budapest removed them and corralled them in the famous Szoborpark (Memento Park) on the southern outskirts of the city. I liked this option because it gives the statues a home that is not the traditional museum, which makes it seem like dusty, dead history, but puts them in the right context.  The statues were designed to be outside and it gives the right feeling, but the proximity of the statues to one another ties them in thematically and also alienates them from their original purpose of agitating the people to remember the great Communists.  The opportunity for propaganda does not exist in that environment.  It's placement on the outskirts of the city is symbolic as well.  It's a purposeful thing; it doesn't remove it, but it removes it from the primary point of consciousness.  However, the legacy lives on without the statues and there is only time and collective action to move things forward.  I can't say that the solution is perfect, but it appeals to me, at least.

The article on Tajikistan is a great collection of the arguments surrounding the symbolism and meaning of statues from the past.  The assembled comments in the article place different arguments in the debate.  Some are based on the current interpretation of history (Lenin has done more for Tajikistan than Somoni), a sense of objectivity (leave them as historical monuments), nostalgia (Lenin means a lot to people), progress (children cannot be patriotic if Lenin statues are around), and historic pain (remove the painful reminder of crimes committed against Tajiks by Bolsheviks; Lenin is a better Hitler).  What is really being discussed is how the nation is officially interpreting their history.  Though the objective notion of historical monuments seems neutral, it's not; there is no neutrality in leaving them there because they are interpreted through experience and never exist in and of themselves.  It's a matter of what the state says they are for and how that is written into social study textbooks.  Collective recollection of history trickles down over time.  Many nations in transition from communism are learning this as the old communist proletariat passes away in time and the younger, globalized generation comes of age.  We can look to how Germany grappled with their fascist history to understand that action is required and never neutral.  It speaks for or against and whatever the shades of gray, there is a message.  Naturally, history is reinterpreted, but the question is, will there be statues to cast a shadow on it?

*[On an unrelated note, I am mystified why the Viennes love Sisi so dearly.  She combed her hair, put stars in it, and rode horses.  I get the superficial appreciation, but it's too much. I just wanted to put that out there.]