July 7, 2010
Monuments and Histories
For years I've read with interest Al Brophy's posts here at PropertyProf on monuments and their contested meanings, particularly with regard to the southern United States.
During my stint in the Czech Republic this summer, I got to see concrete examples (literally) of the contested meanings of monuments -- and the contested histories they represent. Below are some photos I took (please forgive my awful photography) of monuments that coexist in Prague today, but that tell very different stories.
Here is a monument that stands near Hlavni Nadrazi, the main railway station in Prague. It memorializes the liberation of Prague, and much of the Czech Republic, by the Soviet Union in 1945. The Soviet soldier is embracing a Czech partisan -- or perhaps more accurately, the Czech partisan is clinging to the neck of the Soviet soldier. Many Czechs justifiably regarded the Soviets as their saviors. For just one example, when the Soviet army arrived at the Terezin concentration camp, they immediately set up five field hospitals and saved countless victims from the genocidal pit the fascists had thrown them into.
One result of the gratitude many Czechs felt toward the Soviets was a rapid and genuine increase in the political support the Communist party found in the Czech population. By 1948, the Communists were the largest single party in the the Czech parliament -- and shortly thereafter seized power completely, entering fully into the Soviet sphere. Today in Prague, if you look carefully, you can still find monuments to the era of Soviet domination, celebrating the alliance -- although even that word would be controversial, since most Czechs would justifiably say the relationship was imposed by force, particularly following the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion -- between the Czechs and the Soviets. Here, for example, is a bas-relief plaque celebrating the cooperation between the Czechs and Soviets in the achievements of the Soviet space program. It can be found in the Andel metro station in Prague.
But of course these monuments masked another story, one of oppression and terror and poverty. Today in the Czech High Court in Prague, which was once a Gestapo headquarters, and where the Communists conducted Stalinist show trials for advocates of democracy like the executed Milada Horakova, and later-president Vaclav Havel, one can find a series of statues depicting a horrifying confrontation between a man and two wolves. Ultimately the wolves are captured and impaled, but not until the man has suffered horrific (perhaps nearly fatal?) wounds himself. (to emphasize my photographic skills, I accidentally included a mop in the picture). What do these statues mean? I don't know the intent of the sculptor, but to me they suggest the confrontation between justice, on the one hand, and fascist and communist totalitarianism, on the other.
And finally, before this post swamps the entire page, there is one of the most stunning monuments I have ever seen. It is to the victims of communist rule in the Czech Republic. It is actually six different statutes built into one staircase, emerging from a wood. To me, it suggests man emerging from a history that has de-humanized him. What does it suggest to you? Regardless of how you interpret its specific meaning, to me it creates an almost overwhelming feeling of sorrow -- yes, for the specific victims of communism, but also for all of the people of central and eastern Europe, emerging from a century of almost unbelievable violence and horror, as their world tore itself apart.
What is most fascinating to me, even beyond the particular stories conveyed by these monuments, is that they coexist today in Prague. We could interpret that as suggesting there is a contest over Czech history, and that would be accurate to some extent. But I think the real meaning of their coexistence is that the Czechs have resisted, with integrity, a simple narrative of their history. Good vs. evil is usually a fairytale. The uncomfortable truth is that most historical moments contain both. The Czechs have justifiably and unambiguously rejected communism, but as these monuments suggest by their coexistence, they have also rejected the fairytale of unambiguous history.
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Mark, very interesting post. I visited the Soviet Union in 1988 and was struck by the juxtaposition of the Soviet monuments (there was a monument regarding WWII every ten feet or so) and the older Russian monuments. The contrast in St. Petersburg/Leningrad was particularly obvious. I imagine that the post-Soviet monuments in Russia aren't nearly as prevalent as they are in the Czech Republic.
Posted by: Tanya Marsh | Jul 8, 2010 9:20:12 AM
Posted by: Mark Edwards | Jul 8, 2010 11:35:08 AM