Double sided statues: why we need to rethink history

Source: Bing Images

As the futures of statues across the globe are being considered, a life-sized statue of Vladimir Lenin was unveiled in Germany on the 20th June. Despite being synonymous to many with violence, oppression, and fear and wide-spread opposition from members of the public and the town council, the statue was erected on private land in the centre of Gelsenkirchen by the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany. 

The bitter divide between the Marxist-Leninist Party and other members of the public around the statue – and, more importantly, the history it represents – follows other such conversations and protests across the world concerning the histories we choose to commemorate with our own statues. While for the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany, Lenin represents a golden age of communism, for others his philosophy has led to the oppression and deaths of millions in Soviet Russia, Maoist China and North Korea. 

Lenin led the government of Soviet Russia as well as leading the communist party itself; in all, he was in significant positions of power from 1917-1924. During this time, he oversaw what was termed the ‘Red Terror’, a period of mass killings where tens of thousands were interned and executed in concentration camps during the beginning of the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21. Practices during the Russian Civil War have been cited as central in the emergence of leaders like Stalin and accustomed Russian people to cruelty, oppression and fear; in reference to his leadership practices, it has been said that ‘executions, hostages, concentration camps, all the rest […] Stalin initiated very little that Lenin had not already introduced or previewed’. Regardless, there is little doubt that Lenin was instrumental in the development and spread of communist states which are still in effect in parts of the world today. 

It is unsurprising, then, that the statue- the first of Lenin in what used to be a part of East Germany-  has been a site of controversy.

The unveiling of Lenin’s statue has only occurred in the middle of the ongoing debate due to the pandemic (it was meant to have been erected in April for his birthday) and has reminded me of an article I read about a month ago. With the benefit of hindsight (it came out four days before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests that followed) its title was poignantly accurate: ‘Britain’s pride in its past is not matched by any vision for its future’. 

Throughout the course of the pandemic and the lockdown, we have been given narratives of unity and strength that attempt to emulate the ‘golden years’ of national spirit in World War Two, with everyone from Boris Johnson to the Queen reminding us that ‘we’ll meet again’. Captain (and Honorary Colonel Sir) Tom Moore has been wheeled out more times than we could have fathomed, and my middle-aged work colleagues on Facebook seem to think that the pandemic is going to bring us back to the idyllic days of the past.

However, there are huge issues with this perspective. Firstly, Britain’s indefatigable pride in its past rests upon laurels constructed from colonialism, slavery, racism, sexism and inequality. The history we are taught is overwhelmingly whitewashed and rose-tinted, and we can see this process continue in the present as we were presented with all-white pictures of the NHS when we began lockdown.

This isn’t a past that is historically accurate and, once we understand the reality of it, much of our past is not there to be proud of.

Secondly, in my view at least, the future is something that we should overwhelmingly be focusing on and hoping for. The conversations of the last month or so have forced so many people to come to terms with the systemic racism that governs much of our lives and our society and asks us to commit to long term and progressive allyship. The conversations that are happening worldwide need to continue so that we can start to build a world that everyone can live in. There have been calls to diversify the school curriculum, to teach children the past that their present is built on; to make us aware of the injustices of the past and to make sure that we work to eradicate them from the future. 

It’s easier to look at a statue of Lenin and see the two sides of the history that he represents because, at least for me, he isn’t an immediate part of my cultural heritage. However, when it comes to statues of a ‘slave trader and philanthropist’ (somewhat of an oxymoron) like Edward Colston or someone who represents the wartime years cherished so deeply in the national consciousness like Winston Churchill, it seems easier to brush the double-sided aspect of history under the carpet. 

In reality, while figureheading victory over the Nazi party and the end of World War Two, Churchill was also someone who strongly believed in the superiority of ‘the Aryan stock’. Responsible for the deaths of three million men, women, and children in the Bengali famine – something he referred to as ‘merrily’ culling the population, he also advocated the use of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War. While this can and has been dismissed as sentiment fitting of his time, research has suggested that Churchill was seen to be at the concerning end of the imperialist spectrum. The histories of Winston Churchill provided by the government and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, however, barely mention these parts of his history. 

Personally, I think that the systemic rejection of British responsibility and guilt,  especially when it comes to figures like Winston Churchill, is a sign of our inability to accept that the greatness of our past (at least, what we have been taught of it) doesn’t live up to what we see today. The fact that we are taught that the small island we live on was a global superpower doesn’t shape up to the pettiness and division evident throughout the country even before we started a national conversation on racism. 

If we were taught – and if we now start to teach – the reality of our history and the human price that the ‘greatness’ commemorated in our statues cost, then perhaps the present and the future wouldn’t look as underwhelming in comparison.