All statues are raised, but relatively few are razed; when they are, somebody is always upset. In recent years, statues have been vandalized, pulled down by crowds and plucked from public plinths and placed in secret warehouses in the dead of night—to both applause and outcry. Whenever a statue is removed, the same questions arise: Are we erasing history? Wasn’t he just a man of his time? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope?
In Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, historian Alex von Tunzelmann addresses these questions by examining 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor. Tunzelmann makes the argument that statues are not history but rather representations of history. Josef Stalin’s statues were propaganda to justify his grip on the Soviet Union, for example, not depictions of historical fact. The statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans was erected as part of a deliberate campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War by self-avowed white supremacists.
It’s clear from Fallen Idols that there are many reasons to tear down a statue. Removing Stalin’s statue in Budapest was the start of a revolution. Pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue was a symbolic end to the Iraq War—a symbol that turned out to be disastrously wrong. Taking down a statue can also be an act of truth telling. Leopold II of Belgium was not a benevolent ruler of the Congo, for example, even though that’s how monuments depict him. Even during his lifetime, he was widely condemned for his bloodthirsty exploitation and colonization of the Congolese. In cases like these, Tunzelmann finds that, far from erasing history, the eradication of a statue can actually illuminate it.
In discussing these and other statues, Tunzelmann invites us to consider all public monuments. What are these statues commemorating? What are they hiding? Are there other, better ways to depict history in public spaces without resorting to images of great men (or women)? Fallen Idols is an illuminating guide to a much-needed discussion about history and how it is represented.