Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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Old Statues Are Not History—Despite The Comments On Social Media

There is a common belief today that objects from the past are “history”—and that infamously has included the numerous statues around the world that have been removed due to changing values. Such was the case this week as Polish authorities knocked down a monument to the Soviet Red Army in Szczecin that was part of the country’s efforts to remove memorials that glorified the communist regime.

Of course, there were plenty online who suggested “history” shouldn’t be destroyed.

It could be argued first that objects are not history, and moreover, history is just our current interpretation of past events. Objects like statues can be historic in nature, but they’re not actually history. In this case, the statue of a Soviet Red Army soldier only served to memorialize the events carried out during the Second World War—and even then only from a view that was favorable to the Soviet narrative. The memorial certainly didn’t recognize that the Soviet Union invaded, occupied and then annexed eastern Poland, while it completely ignored the Katyn Massacre, in which nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were killed by the Soviet’s NKVD in April and May 1940.

Moreover, the removal of such objects isn’t exactly new.

“Some form of de-communization laws have been in place since the 1980s. Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik, Pope John Paul II, and Czeslaw Milosz, all Poles, were the vanguard that started the collapse of the USSR,” explained Dr. Matthew J. Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven.

“There is no love lost for the Soviet occupation among most Poles,” Schmidt added. “And the war in Ukraine reminds most Poles of when powers in Moscow also attacked Poland, whose borders then included Lviv and parts of Western Ukraine.”

‘Cry Havoc’ Over History

The comments on social media also serve to recall the indignation that occurred as Confederate memorials were removed in the United States. But it should be noted that the protests only came from a small but very vocal minority.

“A protest here and there against the removal of statues only proves the rule, because it’s by far the exception,” Schmidt noted.

There is also a view that the removal of these statutes is still wrong, as it attempts to change the narrative of our shared history.

“Like it or not, our world today has roots in past events, both good and bad. To run from and hide the parts we don’t like cheat us out of a deeper understanding of events and steal any chance we have of building a better future. Except at the highest and worst levels, a correct and healthy view of World War II history means seeing not Jew or Gentile, not Nazi or Communist, not combatant or civilian, but only victim. To tear down memorials runs counter to this philosophy,” suggested military historian Craig Gottlieb.

Of course, the question could be asked at what point might any memorial no longer seem so relevant?

A case in point is the Victory Monument of Actium, which today is in ruins in Greece. It was never actually torn down—but rather was simply abandoned and it fell into ruin over two millennia. Yet, the fact that it is now just one of many countless Roman-era ruins makes the Battle of Actium between the future Roman Emperor Augustus and Mark Antony no less significant in military history.

Ownership Over History

Today it is simply easier than ever to voice concern for the past—and those comments are echoed on social media. The reaction to the removal of the Red Army statues has come from many who likely didn’t even know there were such memorials until the news came of their removal.

“Social media has connected us to a wide range of global conversations. People from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and those from the Philippines can discuss any topic at any time. Of course, over the years, trending topics do not always mean every user truly understands the facts. This is the case regarding Poland,” suggested Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer and program director in the School of Communication at American University.

And in this case, those who have essentially taken ownership of history have largely failed to understand why many in Poland would like to see these torn down.

“In post-World War II Poland, these statues were erected by the Soviets to memorialize their soldiers. Poles, however, lost the highest percentage of their citizens at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. These monuments are seen as a representation of those atrocities,” Mollica continued. “There are individuals on social media who are quick to judge because they believe they understand. If you ask some of those who commented, they most likely do not know the reasons behind Poland’s actions and history. It’s not likely to change soon.”

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