In recent years, the world has witnessed a considerable wave of protests against monuments that, in many cases, have led to their orderly removal or chaotic demolition. Especially striking have been the mobilizations against statues of Confederate leaders in the United States or of colonizers in many countries, but the phenomenon is broader. Of course, there is no shortage of cases in the past in which in an organized or tumultuous way monuments were removed from the middle. But in general, indifference to these symbols reigned, and the episodes in question were linked to regime changes or deep historical cuts. The current phenomenon is, on the other hand, novel, due to its characteristics and scope. What happen?
One possible interpretation of this complex phenomenon is to see it as a symptom of a rapidly changing world. Values evolve very quickly. With the acceleration of the rhythms, some old and new particles collide. In these cases, indifference gives way to outrage towards certain symbols, and global interconnection propagates these dynamics. The monuments, then, are outlined like a mirror that, in addition to the values of the time that erected them, reflects with increasing intensity those of the present.
British historian Keith Lowe reflects on these questions in his book Prisoners of history (Gutenberg Galaxy), a panoramic tour on the history of 25 monuments from different countries linked to the memory of the Second World War. The study composes a portrait of the still central role of this catastrophic event in the present of many societies. A unique global historical category of persistent influence.
Symbols related to that period have generally been freed from waves of recent protests yearning to tear down or retreat. But this does not mean that they are indifferent. On the contrary, they continue to stir up commotion, often provoke controversies – both internal and international – and new works continue to be built to commemorate that time. “They keep telling something important about who we are […] they challenge both our desires for the present and our memories of the past. They respond to a need that is not being covered by the contemporary world ”, writes the author.
In a videoconference interview, the historian develops the idea of World War II as the great global foundational fact of the world today. “It is an event that has served as the basis for building a new world, new institutions, a new architecture,” says the author. More than 70 years after its end, it is still the central and global pillar that supports the construction of our time, a large part of international relations, segments of national politics. The world changes fast but that, for now, no. However, this does not mean that everything remains the same.
“That founding event is moving away in time. People who lived it or felt it very closely have died. It seems that it is time for a new era. But what do we build it on? We do not have an alternative pillar. For now, we preserve the idea of WWII as the basis for building basically because we have nothing else. But it no longer works, because it no longer has the same emotional impact as before. That’s where the cracks open, ”says Lowe. The institutional architecture remains; some reflections follow; but the emotional strength and the capacity for construction that derives from it are not the same.
Prisoners of history He divides his research into five conceptual frameworks: heroes, martyrs, monsters, apocalypse, and rebirth. They are categories with an ancestral inspiring power, mythological echoes, that help to prolong feelings over time. Sometimes the attempt to use these sentiments in a partisan way through monuments is very crude. Some of the recently built monuments are very controversial, they seem to want to take advantage of that history for performances today, such as those dedicated to the Victims of the German occupation in Hungary and the Bomber Command in the United Kingdom.
Thus, the catastrophic war event that gave rise to the undertaking of major international projects – the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, the EU, among others – that sought to embroil old nationalisms, is now sometimes used to fan new nationalisms. generation. Heroisms or victimization commemorated without balance are incubators of disturbing feelings.
The book covers the history and the present of monuments such as the Victims of the Nanjing massacre, The motherland calls you of Volgograd or the Yasukuni Shrine of Tokyo. They all help an understanding of the present tense. Often times, the debate around them points to a recurring evil of our time: the unwillingness to listen. “Here in the UK it is very evident: there is no longer a willingness to listen to others,” says Lowe. “Usually people come in with preformed opinions and refuse to debate. I find that very disturbing, and you see it often in the monuments debate. They must stay! They have to be knocked down! There are many intermediate options between immobility and takedown. You can juxtapose elements that tell what is missing in the most controversial; they can be moved instead of canceled; it can be ironic. It is the intolerance of other points of view that makes everything so difficult ”.
The unwillingness to dialogue and compromise seems to mark many democratic societies, but also the relationship between nations. Bad starting position to look for a new pillar on which to support the construction of a world order that reflects the new time. The fight to save the planet is emerging as the most logical common goal to unite wills. The current negotiations reflect the difficulties for meaningful convergence. 76 years ago, the catastrophe gave birth to a new world order. It remains to be seen if this time humanity will be able to forge another before a new disaster.