All nations build monuments to their past, and almost since the beginning of recorded history, they have done so in the form of statues to heroic figures, set in or near town squares or much-traveled byways. And there the stone or marble monuments live, weathering nicely to a ripe lasting maturity, touchstones to national glory and its people’s best qualities.
But what about when the heroes so depicted have been part of an authoritarian regime, perhaps even a foreign occupier that rules its people with a barbed lethal fist, only to eventually be overthrown and driven from power? What happens to larger-than-life monuments then?
Many countries have faced this question. The Iraqi people answered it in 2003 when, with considerable help and encouragement from U.S. soldiers and tanks, a small contingent of them toppled a statue of the hated despot Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Al-Firdos Square. Then they took to him with a sledgehammer to complete the destruction.
It was as good as they could do at the time to derive some sense of vengeful, cathartic satisfaction, Saddam having fled for the time being, whereabouts unknown.
Eight months later, he was found rumpled and dirty in a hole in the ground, lending a kind of delicious symmetry and mirror image of his noble statue formerly rising to the heavens.
As the democratization movement spread across Europe in the late 1980s, Hungary was among the first of the Soviet Union’s client states to transition peacefully to democracy and free elections. It did so a month before the Berlin Wall came down in about as improbable and astounding a historic event as anyone would have dared to hope for. (Here was an actual positive occurrence of the misbegotten, misapplied “domino theory” that had led the United States into the quagmire of the Vietnam War.)
Hungary had come under Soviet domination in a kind of internal coup in 1949 and was even more ruthlessly brought under its boot after a failed and bloody 1956 attempt at revolution.
So in 1989, among the many questions the newly elected government needed to answer was: What to do with the scores of Soviet-installed monuments to the likes of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and a number of now reviled Hungarian leaders who had conspired with the Soviets to subjugate their own people?
Let jubilant crowds bring their sledgehammers to the town squares in an intoxicating, national bacchanal?
Bury them deep into the earth, dead remnants of an abhorrent past?
The Hungarians decided to take a different tack.
Memento Park (also called “Memorial Park” in various tourist references) lies on the outskirts of downtown Budapest, a few kilometers from where Russian tanks had made rubble from sizable portions of the city in crushing the 1956 revolution. It’s an odd and arresting site, to where some 40 statues were transported from various venues in the early 1990s, there to ultimately stand next to each other in an expansive open air setting when the park opened in 1993.
But rather than an aggregated monument to heroes, the park stands as a haunting but useful reminder of what can happen to countries and people beset by struggles for power and dominance that are as old as humankind. Its architect, Ákos Eleőd, framed it this way:
“These statues are a part of the history of Hungary. Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyze it and think about it!…This park is not about the statues or the sculptors, but a critique of the ideology that used these statues as symbols of authority.”
So: history, to borrow the current popular parlance, “is what it is.” However dark and tangled our past, whether it be the broad sweep of our nation’s history or the personal history we have lived in the habitation of our own bodies and beings, the answer is not to sledgehammer it into unrecognizable shards and bury it under the dirt. Instead, we bring it to the light of day, walking amidst its themes and prevailing currents, taking from them valuable lessons of who we have been, what we have endured, and what we may yet become.
“This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”
“Because it can be talked about, described…”
Is there a more potent rationale for the absolute need of humanity for openness and transparency, for reckoning fearlessly with one’s demons, than that?
Sure, smashing them to the proverbial smithereens can provide momentary relief from rage and resentment, fear and loathing. And just trying to “forget and move on” can also work for a time. But those are mere band-aids on deep piercing wounds, whether of nations or their people.
Because unless one proceeds from smashing and “forgetting” full on into dementia, the hounds of history tend to creep back up on us, usually in twisted shapes, memory having its way to remind us we are the sum total of all our experiences, each one of them to be surveyed, “honored,” or at least accepted in their own ambiguous way, hauled out to a fresh location where they can stand as beacons of what we want and don’t want, ways to be and not to be.
Wandering through the monuments of our past, taking the full measure of our history, we integrate rather than discard its varied remnants, giving them sunshine and attention, out of which new monuments may suggest themselves, in new, more hopefully themed parks of the future.
Singer/songwriter John Gorka, with another take altogether on the subject of monuments…
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of toppled Saddam Hussein statue from public domain, photographer unknown.
Small photo of statues near top of page by Nora Gottardi, Vienna, Austria, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fraumorgenstern/
Large photo of Memento Park statue by Chris Walts, London, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crashadventures/
Bird on boot photo by Patrick Down, Edinburgh, UK, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/patrickdown/
Once again, thank you.
I am taking away a tangential message here, feeling especially moved by some of the references to similar attempts in our personal lives to shut out, rather than integrate, the difficult parts of our own histories. So often we cave to anger and alienation as way to heal from wounds and interpersonal difficulties, resorting to a sort of emotional cauterization rather than stumble forward in those messy, grey areas that honor the more comprehensive reality.
Comprehensive reality being, of course, code words for the understanding that we all make mistakes, we hurt each other, we love each other. In short: we are human. Sometimes all that is left is pain, and wariness, and the only reminders we will allow are those that warn us, like those statues, to never again to be open and vulnerable, to trust, to love.
Smashing it to bits so that the visual evidence disappears, or tending to our wounds as a cautionary tale and safeguarding our hearts are understandable, if lamentable, responses. It requires such bravery, more than we can sometimes summon, to see past the statue, the icon, the reminders of pain, and forge something new that reflects the entire history and paves a path forward.
Being human: such a lot of work.
You’re so welcome, Bud. Glad you’re getting something out of it.
Angela, your comments remind me how reactive humans tend to be on a kind of default level, and how much good, persistent intention is the only thing that gets us beyond that. Learning how to fight fair is a hard-won process; we either act like the despot who just overruns the weaker vulnerable adversary (and then erect statues of ourselves in their backyard) or we act like those presidential debaters we’ve been confronted with lately, with maximum defenses and potent counter-offensives ever at the ready. (“You ALWAYS…”…”You NEVER…”…What about the time…?” In other words, lesser versions of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)
Self-awareness and a slow turning toward a different way of being may yet save us, but you’re right: such a lot of work. Interpersonally, it just challenges relationships, but internationally, with all that weapons tonnage lying about, not learning how to fight fair has far more destructive consequences.
Thoughtful, insightful and beautifully written. Thanks, Andrew. (An aside – how can we get your thinking and writing out to a wider audience? Too few of us read your blog and engage in the important conversations which it evokes, but I digress.) What you write causes me to ponder how a nation, or an individual, can best come to grips with the past. Staring it straight in the face is critical for healing and moving beyond into something brighter and more hopeful, yet I wonder if there aren’t times when smashing the symbol isn’t only cathartic but necessary to be liberated? Your piece also triggered my interest in what’s happening in Hungary right now, a story of which I’ve been vaguely aware (how can we keep track of what’s happening in so many parts of the world?) as a disturbing drift backwards toward authoritarianism. What is it in the human psyche that replaces breaths of fresh air and freedom with inclinations to dominate others and seek the solace of “strong men”? Whether in Hungary or Russia, where jubilant crowds cheered the demise of communism only to embrace the ugly rule of Putin, or our own country in which so many are flirting with the neo-facism of Donald Trump, the fresh air of freedom and human kindness is so often abandoned for something smaller and more mean-spirited.
In any event, I appreciate this piece, and it has me thinking. Be well, my friend, and keep writing.
Another fascinating piece – and thoughtful responses! I had not heard of Memento Park, but love the idea… as an arm chair history buff this is music to my soul – interestingly today there was a little blurb in the paper about Putin decrying Lenin’s repressive behavior but when asked about removing his body from Red Square he said no way, not wanting to “divide society”… how we tell the stories of our past is no doubt an on-going process of revising/arguing/exploring but it seems telling them is essential to the integrating and perhaps “learning from” that Santayana’s famous “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” evokes…appreciate Angela’s linking these ideas to our own individual personal/emotional histories too… good stuff mate!
Sorry I’ve been away from this while giving Caesar his due on the paid work front, but wanted to say I appreciate your kind and thoughtful reflection, David. I just keep plugging along here, with readership growing steadily but not by any viral leaps & bounds. Since I seem to break most rules of blogging—keep it short & snappy, be topical & timely with the affairs of the day, etc.—I don’t suspect I’ll ever attract the masses, but I certainly do appreciate the conversations that do break out here on occasion. Notably, I often get private notes of encouragement from readers who also express some variation of, “I’d comment but am afraid I’d sound stupid next to those intelligent people you get on there.” Too humble and self-effacing by half, I think, but I do understand the hesitation.
As for your questions, yes, Mr. Orban is managing to ease Hungary back in the direction of oppression once again, just as Putin has done in Russia. This freedom/oppression axis seems to be an eternal tension in human affairs. Freedom includes the freedom to fail and mess things up while a country and its people try to stand on their own two legs. And when those legs get wobbly, we tend to blame others, create scapegoats, and pine again for the security of a strong authoritarian leader, especially when there is a lack of democratic history and strong constitutional and civic structures to get people through difficult times. And yes, even here, in democratically battle-tested USA, our foundations are shaking as the fascist strongman impulses exemplified by Trump are having another go in the public square. I don’t think we’ll succumb once we get to election time, but his popularity does suggest we are never far from the fear-induced fascism that begat the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII, for just one example. We are never as immune to welcoming renewed oppression as we like to think, fear being the powerful galvanizer of our worst impulses that it is.
Kevin, I found Putin’s line about “dividing society” almost humorous—in a bitter-barking-humor sort of way. His preferred method of keeping society undivided seems to be increasingly along Stalinist lines—just shoot or throw into the gulag all those who don’t agree with you. “And now see what a nice unified society we have!”
Glad I checked back here to see your response, Andrew. It’s quite challenging to keep track of the many internet conversations we’re engaged in. Did I check back on this one, that one? Anyway, thanks for your comments on my posts, and I’ll do my best to stay engaged in yours. I truly respect your thoughts and writings.
Great message Andrew. Timing is perfect. As is the message about history is what it is!