Lenin, Stalin, & Robert E. Lee: The power of contested histories and their monuments

Dealing with burdened and contested histories is not just a German or post-socialist issue. The tragic news of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and elsewhere in the southern United States over other Confederate monuments proves that.

Today, I want to go beyond specifics and unpack the function of memorials in social, political, and spatial negotiations of identity, history, and power.

In my last post, I examined symbolism in contemporary German architecture as predicated on nearly 60 years of ideological architectural instrumentalization. I’ve also examined similar topics in this paper und this paper. Today, I’m going to focus on monuments (sculptural or physical memorials) and street and place names (name memorials).

There is no denying that Robert E. Lee was an important historical figure in the United States. Lenin and Stalin were important figures in Eastern and Central Europe. Why are memorials to them such a problem today? And why do some memorials present bigger problems than others?

Marx & Engels in Berlin. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

The act of memorializing has a few different functions in our society. It can praise the achievements of the person being memorialized or remind us of a particular event. In fact, the German language differentiates between three types of memorials:

  • Denkmal (which memorialize a person or event – neutral implicit meaning and the general umbrella term for memorials),
  • Ehrenmal (which honor important people or fallen soldiers – implicit indication that these are values which are positive and/or politically-sponsored), and
  • Mahnmal (which reminds us of an event, in hopes that it will not be repeated – implicit indication that these values run contrary to the social norm).

Memorials such as statues and street names almost always fill the second function. The larger and more prominent the statue or named street, the more social acceptance and praise is awarded to that person. For that reason, independent of their historical importance (because there are a large number of people who were historically important but don’t receive a memorial), memorialized persons are intended to either:

  1. establish a power dynamic (i.e. a statue of the king or duke), or
  2. act as avatars for the characteristics and qualities that the society stands for.


Not far from Carl Alexander’s empty pedastel, Ernst Thälmann, an important figure in the GDR, still holds a prominent position in Weimar. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse
In Weimar, the pedastel which once was home to a statue of Carl Alexander, duke of Saxony, stands empty. A plaque with historical photos shows the former state. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

Memorials of people and ideas also can help express territory. This is particularly the case in colonies and former colonies. In times of regime change, the political change is often accompanied by a reactionary change in symbolism, including the radical removal of the symbols of the old regime. One good example of this is the fate of memorials to British monarchs in Ireland after Irish independence (see this excellent article for more information).

Memorialization helps to codify and solidify a common social and political identity, at least formally, by presenting and representing a formally-accepted version of history. This process and its implications usually only become visible when history and its symbols are contested, as with Robert E. Lee and Lenin.

Elizabeth Strom puts it well:

“Urban space has a symbolic dimension … the built environment projects messages about who, historically and in the present, should be entitled to feel at home in it” (from Building the New Berlin: The Politics of Urban Development in German’s Capital City)

Not only that, memorials send a message about who is in charge, and what kind of values we as a society see fit to memorialize.

A socialist mosaic from 1969 still adorns the culture palace in Dresden. The 300-square-meter mosaic depicts the development of the workers’ movement from the 1858/1859 revolution to the German Democratic Republic. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

That’s where Confederate and socialist monuments become a problem – the larger and more prominent they are, the more of a problem they become. It is important to keep in mind that memorials do not remind us of history in a neutral way, but rather highlight particular events or people as worthy of special honor and remembrance. This is why the memorial to a general who fought, among other things, to maintain the status quo of slavery in the American South, meets with such political and social resistance.

Robert E. Lee’s statue served yet another memorial function this past month, however. Memorials and spaces of memory always present not only a place for individual, casual, and quotidian rememberance and reflection, but can also become places of pilgrimage for a variety of groups. As with the events in Charlottesville, the removal of the monument provided an apt pretense for a large far-right political rally.

For exactly this reason, the location of Hitler’s bunker is today a parking lot.

Hitlers bunker.JPG
Under this unassuming parking lot in Berlin lie the remains of Adolf Hitler’s bunker, where he committed suicide as the Allied troops closed in around Berlin in 1945. Photo: Sarah Ewart [CC BY-SA 3.0].

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