Symbols on a pedestal

Ciaran Sunderland examines public statues and the political messages surrounding their construction and removal.

A statue can assume great symbolic meaning. Static and carved from stone, the figure may remain physically unchanged for centuries. The connotations of a statue, however, fluidly adjust alongside the interpretations and associations that society develops. As features of a nation’s cultural landscape, national stories can be illustrated by the monuments erected and removed. As Benedetto Croce said: “All history is contemporary history”. Modern beliefs change opinions of past events. The debate surrounding monuments best demonstrates this, and poses the question: which statues should stand and which should fall?

In the USA, racial politics are at their most prevalent in years. Most recently, the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the attempted removal of the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee have drawn attention to Confederate statues across the country and what the statues represent. Speaking to Trinity News Dr Daniel Geary, Mark Piggott Associate Professor in American History, discussed the meaning of Confederate statues and why some people want to remove them while other groups are rallying to stop them.

“These statues are seen as symbols of the history of white racism in the region, and which recent attention has been called to by Black Lives Matter and other groups of that kind, questioning whether people like Robert E. Lee or the Confederacy should really be celebrated.”

He goes on to explain why other groups argue to keep them: “Well, [Confederate statues] are symbols, symbols are always invested with the power people give to them, and for those who want to tear them down they are a symbol of white supremacy and the legacy of that, but those who want to keep it as a symbol of white nationalism, to keep it as a sort of regional pride, although I think that has a racial aspect to it as well”.

With all of the issues about race percolating through American society brought into the open with the election of Donald Trump, Geary argues that emboldened white nationalist groups were searching for some sort of symbolic fight, and Charlottesville was their battleground of choice. Ultimately, Geary believes that “symbols have the power people invest in them. If it didn’t happen with Robert E. Lee then it would have been another symbol”. These issues are “not so much about the past as they are about today”.

For the white nationalist groups, Geary says, “what matters to them is what kind of story is told about the US and their story is a white nationalist story, the story that the nation used to be great when the nation was for the ‘white man’”. Simplified and historically inaccurate, it nonetheless has powerful emotional associations. Geary explains that the need to restore the nation to its former status is a powerful motivation for these groups. He also explains why the Confederacy and the Civil War have been included in this: “The Civil War was fought on the issue of slavery, although many in the North did not necessarily want African Americans to become citizens…there is a kind of feeling that the Confederacy was on the right side from their perspective because they were fighting to keep blacks in their place.”

Geary points out that one of the most interesting things about the Confederate statues is the date of their construction. “A lot of the statues were built in the 1960s, and in essence were a response in white localities to send a clear message of resistance to black civil rights.” Geary also mentions that before the Civil Rights movement these statues were mainly constructed between 1900 and 1920, “50–60 years after the Civil War, when the South was encouraging a new system of Jim Crow that was a different way of keeping black people in their place that was not slavery but in which black people were relegated to second-class citizenship”.  

In a phone conversation with Trinity News, final-year TSM Russian Studies student Dylan Collins explains how statues become powerful symbols of ideology, and why statues of Lenin and Stalin across Russia and Eastern Europe are prominent examples. “The statues tie into a greater social project of the Soviet Union: to get man to strive for more, to become the perfect Soviet man.” Collins notes that “with regard to Lenin there was a ‘heroisation’ factor behind it, like remembering the great revolutionaries of the Soviet Union, and to a greater extent representing dominance, power and masculinity”. Along with the importance of maintaining the glory of the revolution within the social and national conscience, periods of widespread national reflection also occurred, like de-Stalinisation and Perestroika, when the atrocities of Stalin in the 1930s became more widely known. Stalin’s societal presence was reduced, although to nationalists he remained very important.

However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, former Soviet Republics and members of the Eastern Bloc are still attempting to decide what to do with these former monuments. In Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, recent controversy was generated when Soviet monuments to Red Army victories and fallen soldiers were considered for removal. Collins describes one issue with removing monuments in Eastern Bloc countries and elsewhere:

“If you remove that statue, are you removing the global scope of memory [that comes] with that statue? Be that what the statue deliberately represents of the negative feelings associated with that statue or monument…is it then contributing to contemporary amnesia [about] the past?”

Ukraine is especially interesting in this regard as it was both a Soviet republic and a part of imperial Russia. The recent removal of almost 1000 Lenin statues therefore carries a greater meaning, in Collins’ opinion. After the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalists had seen an opportunity for self-determination. The presence of Lenin thus symbolised losing their autonomy and “just becoming part of a communist empire, if you will”.

The historical conflict involving monuments in Ireland revolves around republicanism and British imperialism. Speaking to Trinity News Dr. Brian Hanley, historian-in-residence at Dublin City Library, explains why republican and loyalist groups attacked certain statues, why the British erected imperial monuments in Ireland, and the commemorative efforts of the Free State and the Republic.

The presence of British imperial monuments to the monarchy and military figures in Ireland is explained quite simply by Hanley. “In the eyes of the British administration and the British government, [Ireland] was an integral part of the United Kingdom, and they saw nothing strange about putting up monuments to British monarchs and British military heroes in Irish towns…what the local population thought didn’t really matter. As far as they were concerned, it was British soil.”

The Free State acted to remove monuments and statues it considered inappropriate, although according to Hanley it was cautious not to antagonise the British. One of the most prominent examples of this was the removal of Queen Victoria from the front of the national parliament. “As far as nationalists were concerned, Victoria was the monarch that ruled during the Famine. She was known ultimately as the Famine Queen. To have a statue of her in the national parliament was provocative.” Eventually, in 1948, the Republic was successful in removing the statue, and attempted to move it to Canada before placing it in storage. In 1986, it was transferred to Sydney.

Nelson’s Pillar also proved problematic for many years, although no action was taken to remove it by the state. In 1966, a republican group found a simpler method than storage and shipping and blew up the monument, although the Irish army had to finish the job. On the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, Hanley says many republicans “were talking about the unfinished business of the Rising and bringing about a united Ireland”, and so Nelson’s Pillar was an obvious target for their ire.

The erection of statues, and more controversially their removal, prompts questions on how to remember the past while allowing for the problems that contemporary perspectives raise about historical figures and events. To demolish every statue in the US, Geary says, would be futile, as he points out President Trump may have a point: where does one cease? Geary believes a better conversation about America’s racial history and the Confederacy would be possible by acknowledging the achievements of people of colour throughout history, like the election of John Mercer Langston, Virginia’s first congressman of colour. Dylan Collins draws attention to the Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, where a number of deposed monuments to Soviet history are arranged. From Soviet emblems to statues and busts of Stalin and former secret police director Felix Dzerzhinsky, important Soviet monuments are both preserved and provided with new context.

Ireland is not excluded from this. There are many iconic statues in Ireland that reflect the nationalists’ struggle for independence, as well as unionist attempts to preserve Ireland’s place within the Union. Some groups, loyalist and republican, have attempted to commemorate events and figures while also targeting their opponents’ monuments. The debate has also extended into left/right politics, as in the case of the statue of IRA leader Sean Russell in Fairview Park in Dublin. There have been several politically motivated attacks on the monument since its unveiling, from both left and right-wing groups. Soon after its erection in 1951 the monument was vandalised with paint, and a year later its arm was cut off. Certain people believed the statue’s pose was communistic. The statue was repaired and unveiled for a second time in 1965. Most recently the statue was vandalised in 2005, this time by an anti-fascist group who claimed Russell had fascist sympathies due to his meetings in Nazi Germany. The statue was beheaded, beginning a new conversation around Russell’s attempts to free Ireland from British rule.

Unlike Confederate and Soviet statues, the argument over the Sean Russell statue can be solved by basic research. The statue is the property of the National Graves Association (NGA), and its chairman, Sean Whelan, explains that the statue is actually to all of the fallen republicans of the 1930s and 1940s volunteer campaigns. Criticism of Russell’s militarism is fair, but Whelan disputes the fascist association argument. “Everything we have recently found out and we know historically indicates Russell was anti-fascist.” Whelan recounts the NGA’s research into the National Archives of England & Wales following the recent declassification of documents, which found a statement amongst British intelligence that Russell “plainly did not regard himself as a German agent”, and that German Intelligence service Abwehr reported “the Nazi philosophy as an enigma” to Russell. According to Whelan, anti-fascist groups are making their argument based on Russell’s visits to Nazi Germany to acquire arms in the 1930s. However, Whelan says, by extension of that logic, Russell was also a communist, as he visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s for the same purposes.

Statues have been built from varied materials for many years, but what a statue can stand for far outweighs its composites of metal and stone.

Illustration: Aoife Curtis