The late Dr. P.V. Thorson, who served with the U.S. Army in Germany just after World War II, later taught history at UND, including courses that touched on the war.
I remember him talking – 50 years ago – about the desolation of German cities, the ruins left by ceaseless days and nights of Allied bombing. And I remember the line of Latin he quoted, from British Historian Alan Bullock’s 1952 biography, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.”
“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”
Bullock had taken the words from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was the epitaph for Christopher Wren, the British architect who more than two centuries before had built St. Paul’s and many other London churches.
“If you seek his monument, look around.”
It was a fitting epitaph, Bullock thought, for Adolf Hitler, and P.V. agreed. Go to Germany. Stand in the rubble.
Do you seek Hitler’s monument?
I’ve been thinking about monuments – statues, especially – and how we remember history as protests sweep the country, now targeting memorials to famous figures of our past. Statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals have been defaced and toppled. The assault on statuary has extended to slave-owning presidents and other high-ranking racists.
I understand, and I’m conflicted. I’ve read enough by Thomas Jefferson to revere the philosopher, the statesman, the revolutionary. His memorial in Washington, D.C., has long been one of my favorite places to contemplate my country. But I’ve read enough, too, to know that Jefferson, like George Washington, perpetuated and benefited from a brutal, evil system. The problem with statues of “great” figures is that they tend to make them look noble, whether or not they were always noble in life.
But what should we make of the destruction Tuesday night in Madison, Wis., of a statue of Col. Hans Christian Heg? Protesters pulled the statue down, decapitated it and tossed it into a lake.
Why target Heg? He was an immigrant from Norway, an ardent anti-slavery activist who fought and died for the Union during the Civil War, leading the mostly Scandinavian 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment.
Gov. Tony Evans said, “What happened in Madison last night presented a stark contrast from the peaceful protests we have seen across our state in recent weeks.”
Others didn’t draw such a distinction, and that’s a problem. I understand the anger, the impatience of protesters. But people opposed to systemic change are quick to seize on the violence – whoever is perpetrating it – to justify their resistance. And people who might be won over to the need for change recoil.
President Trump, speaking after police foiled an attempt to pull down a statue of slave-owning, Indian-brutalizing Andrew Jackson in Washington, said his administration is “looking at long-term jail sentences for these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and agitators.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denounced “this new Red Guard that nobody elected” and lamented that “our founding fathers are being roped to the ground like they were Saddam Hussein.”
And Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., posted on Facebook, “The Democrat ‘Black Lives Matter’ Party, along with armies of rioters, are at war with our country, our beliefs and western culture.”
Where’s the focus? On concerns about police, racism and injustice? No. It’s on “rioters” and “agitators” and “this new Red Guard.”
Clay Jenkinson, the North Dakota historian and author who has portrayed Jefferson on radio and in appearances around the country – including at the White House – raised the “what now” question in a talk this week on WGN Radio in Chicago.
The host asked Jenkinson what he thought about plans for removing a statue of Theodore Roosevelt – another Jenkinson subject – from its place in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Roosevelt is portrayed on horseback, and at his sides walk an American Indian and an African gun bearer.
To the host’s surprise, Jenkinson said he thought the statue should go.
In that lofty pose, TR is “the exemplar of civilization leading these primitives … toward the light, toward civilization,” he said, and the presentation “does evoke everything that we’re now really anxious about with respect to colonialism, empire, imperialism, racial domination and racial hierarchies.”
He would not consign it to the scrap heap, however. “Don’t melt it. Put it inside the museum with interpretive panels,” so generations can reflect on that period of our history and Roosevelt’s role in it.
But, Jenkinson asked, “Where does it end? Do we start book burning?” Roosevelt wrote volumes about “the winning of the West,” books “filled with things that make you want to cringe … about imperialism and the white man’s mission and our duty to bring the peoples of the world out of darkness and into the light.”
We seek a better world. It matters, though, how we get there. “We’re just on the edge of mob action here,” Jenkinson said. “We need to slow it down, have a serious national conversation.”
But can we?
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.