The Destruction of Statues and History

Saddam Hussein Statue

History is written by the victors. We need to learn what the vanquished might have done, had they prevailed.

We still remember the statue of Saddam Hussein as it teetered, tipped and crashed to the ground amidst great jubilation. This was in 2003 and was supposed to celebrate Iraq’s liberation by American forces. It did not quite turn out that way…but the statue is gone.

In Ukraine, after President Yanukovich was defeated in 2015 and fled to Russia, the Ukrainians got busy removing 1,329 statues of Lenin, arm extended toward a glorious proletarian future. They wanted to be rid of all Soviet symbols. Even so, many such statues are still alive and well in Eastern Ukraine.

Lenin Statue


Another controversy erupted over the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Lubyanka Square in Moscow. Dzherzhinsky was the founder of the KGB.  The monument was removed and restored several times, and a replica of the statue now resides in the city of Minsk in Belarus.


Dzherzhinsky Deconstructed

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a big housecleaning of communist life and art occurred. Fortunately for historians, the Moscow Metro underground system escaped this purge and remains intact. The stations are lavishly decorated with murals of historical events statues, bas reliefs and Communist-era paintings. It is a huge underground museum.

There was no such housecleaning in China. There the ubiquitous statues of Mao are still standing in their original places.

In Budapest, Hungary the government built a shrine called Memento Park in which reside 40 statues from the time when the country was a Soviet satellite. Similarly, when Lithuania was liberated from the Soviet Bloc and regained its independence in 1991, it opened Gruntas Park to house hundreds of sculptures of Soviet leaders. The Park was made to resemble a Russian Prison with guard towers to represent oppression.

In France, Marechal Petain was the great hero of Verdun during World War I. And then in a stunning about face he became the leader of the Vichy-Occupied French Government after the fall of France during World War II. The hero turned into a traitor. After liberation of France from the Nazis, all the streets named for him acquired new names. Petain was lucky to avoid being shot like his prime minister, Pierre Laval.

And so to the United States, where we now have our own controversy over Confederate leaders’ statues.In Charlottesville, Virginia, violence erupted over plans to topple monuments to Confederate generals. In Austin, Texas, Robert E Lee’s statue was taken down. Similar battles are occurring in Gainesville, Florida and in Birmingham, Alabama where the mayor hid a confederate monument. And Tennessee is preparing to topple a monument to Nathan Bedford, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.


Hidden In Alabama

Should we remove statues of hateful leaders and those that remind us of offensive events? Perhaps we should, but following the example of other countries, we could create spaces, museums, gardens where these pieces of our history could be gathered, housed and displayed along with information about their times and activities so they could be seen in their proper context. School children could visit to expand their understanding of our common history.


From the Editor: My esteemed author will appreciate and be inspired by any comments you would like to make. Please see the space for this below.


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5 years ago

Fascinating…I never thought about the history of statue removal in other countries. Of course, the Romans did it all the time, as emperors rose and fell from power. Part of how we date their tenure is when their faces begin to appear on coins, and when they vanish. It’s also part of how we track trade, where the coins made it to and where we find them. Thanks for sharing!

5 years ago

We have to learn from the past, obviously. Removing a statue, or any king of public display, and the political gain or loss that go with the removal, is an interesting issue. A sensible one also would be to clearly understand why they have been installed in the first place, and with what expected/actual impact on communities by the powers that were. Removing them in theme parks or institutions devoted to pedagogie and public awareness seems a useful solution, with as neutral narrative as possible, also to defuse anger from those who see their message as important. Maybe to leave… Read more »

Ray Russell
Ray Russell
5 years ago

Dear Simone:
What an excellent take on a controversial situation. It seems people must be continually reminded, “Those who don’t learn from History are condemned to repeat it”! I applaud you constructive suggestion that such statues (and information related to them) be gathered in a place where we would all recognize that we are not glorifying or honoring bad things that were done, but we are recording history that actually occurred, and without a rewrite!

Norman P.
Norman P.
3 years ago

Monuments that glorify slavery, racism, white supremacy, and oppression shouldn’t be displayed in public places. It seems pretty simple to me but I know the controversy will continue. The argument that we need to keep them there to remind us of our history is bull. The event will be remembered, it doesn’t need to be celebrated.