The Past and Future of the Iconoclast

At the end of the Cold War and with the collapse of the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe, it was not necessarily a surprise to see a sweeping attack on the icons of the Soviet regime, especially in countries that considered themselves to have been occupied by the Soviet Union. Krzysztof Kieslowski captured this, somewhat ironically, at the beginning of his film The Double of Véronique (1991), when Irène Jacob’s character of Véronique and other schoolgirls run past a truck carrying away a statue of Lenin in the middle of a sudden rain shower. She and her friends do not notice the statue at all. And why should she? She is rushing to meet her boyfriend. Something monumental had changed, but politics often runs in the background of daily life.
“Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980,” a current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, has a wider concern than just monuments, but the neglected memorials that the Yugoslav state built are a key part of the exhibit, many of them designed by Bogdan Bogdanović, to mark the victory of the partisans in World War II and the defeat of the internal and external fascists. One of the most important monuments, the one built at the Croatian Ustaše extermination camp of Jasenovac, was one that was demanded by Yugoslav citizens and resisted by Tito. In the end, the meaning and value of a war and genocide that had consumed hundreds of thousands of lives had collapsed, along with Yugoslavia.
If iconoclastic surges are to be expected with the collapse of major political regimes, the events in many Western democracies these days should suggest to us that something interesting is afoot. Many citizens and governments are beginning to tear down, move, or recontextualize key monuments in their own societies. There is a shift in political regime underway in these countries as well, although it is far from uncontested. In the southern United States, many monuments to Confederate Civil War icons are being taken down or moved. In the northern parts of the United States, citizens are beginning to rediscover the role that slavery played in the north, including the recent unearthing of the foundation of George Washington’s house in Philadelphia, on Independence Mall, where he kept slaves. In the English city of Bristol, the citizens of the city are wrestling with the legacy of the 17th-century businessman and philanthropist Edward Colston. He founded many important and enduring institutions in the city while also placing himself at the center of the slave trade in the city. In early August, the city of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, decided to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, for many Canadians the “Father of Confederation,” for many others a key figure of scorn for having established what became known as Residential Schools and the writing of a highly racist Indian Act. The Spanish still have not figured out what to do with the Valle de los Caídos basilica outside of Madrid, where the remains of Fransico Franco still rest. Spain’s new Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez has made it clear that Franco’s remains should be removed “immediately.” We’ll see. And then we have in Poland the attempts of a government to legislate how one should discuss Polish history during the German occupation of the country during World War II and the Holocaust.
Is this all just business as usual in the western democracies, with contentious politics being played out around key national and civic symbols? Or are we witnessing the foundation of a new political memory regime, institutionally democratic to be sure, but also somehow different from what had come before? Are there new guiding principles and norms that will shape how western democracies engage or avoid their difficult histories? While there was a broad social consensus about what to do with the Soviet legacy in 1991, this same sort of consensus is clearly lacking around many of the other debates mentioned above. For many like Véronique, these contestations will pass in the background of busy lives filled with other concerns. For others, the struggle over these symbols mark the political fault lines for present and future conflict.

Mark A. Wolfgram, McGill University