“Debates about statues are often posed in simplistic primary colours”: Alex Von Tunzelmann on controversial statues
Alex Von Tunzelmann speaks to Matt Elton about her new book, Fallen Idols, which explores the stories behind some of history’s most controversial statues – and the reasons that people have wanted to bring them down
Matt Elton: Over the past 18 months, debates about historical statues have reached fever pitch. Why are they so divisive?
Alex von Tunzelmann: Statues are obviously only one form of commemoration of history and our past, but I think they have become so controversial because they're so visible. Even quite small towns often have some kind of memorial. And people tend to get quite emotionally invested in them because they look like people.
There’s another factor, too. In many European countries, and the United States, a lot of the statues are from the era of colonialism, so they tap directly into current “culture war” debates about the kind of direction we’re going in as a society and how our past plays into that.
Is it revealing that all the statues your book explores are of men?
I deliberately picked 12 men for this book. Most of them are white, too, although there are a few exceptions: [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein was Arab, and Rafael Trujillo, the former Dominican dictator, was mixed race despite defining himself as white. The reason for that selection is that the statues erected over the past few hundred years have overwhelmingly been of white men. As I mentioned, they’re contentious partly because many of them date from the high period of colonialism, which for me really ties into the fashionable Victorian idea that history was made by great men. Statues were a visible form of that concept: there was even a period in the late 19th century during which a phenomenon known as “statuemania” saw huge numbers of statues going up all over the world at an incredible rate. The artist Edgar Degas joked that, in Paris, they had to put fences around parks to stop artists from depositing statues, as if they were dogs going to the lavatory.
How hard was it to pick just 12 statues?
It was so difficult because you quickly realise that there are a lot of statues! I wanted to focus on political statuary, and I wanted to try and keep it within a historical framework that felt contemporary and relevant to today’s world. So even though these debates are extremely old, the book starts with the American Revolution and the pulling down of the statue of George III that occurred in that moment.
That statue of George III was erected and pulled down in the 1770s. What does its story tell us about the relationship between statues and the past?
That example is particularly interesting because it challenges a lot of current debate about statues. A statue of George III went up in what was then the Province of New York when it was still under British control. But it was actually something of an afterthought. The people of New York had originally wanted to put up a statue of William Pitt, who they considered to be responsible for defending their interests against the British taxation that they considered highly unfair. But putting up a statue of the king’s minister without also having a statue of the king was felt to be bad form and not very patriotic, so they had to put up one of the king as well – hence this statue of George riding a horse and wearing a toga in Bowling Green in New York.
General George Washington read out the Declaration of Independence in New York in 1776, which of course talks a lot about George III as being personally responsible for some of the abuses that New Yorkers felt had been carried out in America. A mob of soldiers, sailors and civilians that had gathered to hear Washington’s speech hurried straight down to Bowling Green, attached ropes to the statue of the king and pulled it down. It was made of lead, so it was quite soft but very, very heavy. Yet they did manage to haul it down and break it into lots of pieces. Many were even melted down and turned into musket balls to be used against the British in the war.
Washington himself seems to have been somewhat unhappy with the fact that his soldiers and sailors had pulled this statue down. But he didn’t say he disapproved of pulling it down – just that he thought the way in which it was done showed a lack of discipline and order.
This story was particularly fascinating in 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests led to people pulling down and attacking Confederate statues in the US. Rightwing commentators at the time suggested that pulling down these statues was an appalling erasing of history – but then, of course, others pointed out that it was the kind of action that was literally the foundation of the nation. The beginning of the War of Independence was the pulling down of a statue. So the context in which a statue went up and in which it was pulled down really matters.
So is it fair to say that you think a statue isn’t in itself history, but rather the events surrounding it and how it is later interpreted?
Yes. People often argue that you can’t pull statues down, because it’s erasing history, but many of us who work in history – and, I’m guessing, many of those reading this interview – think that history is not just contained in lumps of bronze or stone. History is debate and discussion; it’s looking at archives and documents and all kinds of other of sources. A statue, really, is just a piece of propaganda. Some may have artistic merit; some have historical interest for various reasons. Some of the remainders of the George III statue, for instance, sold for a huge sum at auction in 2019 after they were found in a garden. The relics of that statue are now considered quite valuable and interesting, and most are in the collection of the New York Historical Society. But the reason they’re interesting is because the statue was pulled down, and that it became a symbol of revolution, rather than because the statue itself was of any particular value.
Listen: Alex von Tunzelmann explores the stories behind some of the world’s most controversial statues – and gives her take on whether they should stand or fall, on the HistoryExtra podcast:
Writing in The Guardian in June, columnist and academic Gary Younge argued that Britain has a particular fixation with statues – but I was really struck by how internationally diverse the examples in your book are. Do statues tell us something about Britain’s colonial role, or are they a global phenomenon?
Although the modern phenomenon of statuary in Europe and North America has its roots in that colonial period, it’s important to remember that the kind of statues we’re talking about – honorific portrait statues – are a very old form of commemoration. Even in ancient Egypt, it was common for pharaohs to put up statues of themselves and knock down those of their predecessors to establish their own legitimacy, for instance. And many parts of the world have their own indigenous traditions of statuary.
What has happened since the end of the colonial period has been really interesting, too. Huge numbers of statues went up during the communist period, especially in the former USSR and later in North Korea. Former colonies such as India are fascinating in this regard: the current Indian government has an absolute obsession with putting up gigantic statues, and has recently built the largest example the world has ever seen. So I don’t think you can say any longer that statues are just a colonial or British concern: I think it’s a phenomenon that exists in different contexts and traditions all around the world.
Those communist examples are fascinating, particularly the thousands of statues that Stalin ordered to be built of himself. What can we infer from the fact that there were so many, and that so many of them were so massive?
A lot of them were gigantic. The Soviets were so into statuary that there are very different stories to tell, and I cover both Lenin and Stalin. Lenin was quite keen not to have statues of himself put up. But after he died, Stalin gradually took over, and he began to put up thousands of statues of Lenin. That was the start of the creation of a cult of personality that Stalin then applied to himself by introducing himself into the iconography. Initially Lenin was the big figure and Stalin was there almost as a pupil, sitting in an inferior position. But that soon changed, and they began to be portrayed as equals before, eventually, Stalin was depicted as a great figure and Lenin as a tiny figure in the background.
This cult of personality is a trait of 20th-century dictators from across the political spectrum. Statues are such an effective part of that because, as I suggested earlier, they really look like people. If you put up a massive statue of Stalin in a city, it brings with it an element of Big Brother: you almost feel that he’s there, watching you. Stalin really encouraged people to treat his statues in a quasi-religious manner, as icons. When a huge statue of Stalin went up in Budapest, the city’s newspapers told people that, if they had any worries or fears, they should tell the statue about their problems and they would be solved. And I think that’s why Stalin used them: they were incredibly effective at extending his presence, impressing and intimidating the population, and creating a quasi-religious incarnation of himself.
Stalin used statues because they were incredibly effective at extending his presence, intimidating the population and creating a quasi-religious incarnation of himself
Do statues tell us as much about the people who put them up as it does about the people they commemorate?
Yes, and often in quite complicated ways. Stalin was the driving force behind the programme to put up statues of himself, but that’s certainly not always the case. One example of this that has received a lot of attention is the statue of Edward Colston that was pulled down by a public mob in Bristol in 2020 and thrown into the harbour. Colston was a merchant and a great philanthropist in the city, where lots of things were named after him. But he also made an awful lot of money in the slave trade, and it’s not as if he was just some kind of passive shareholder: he was effectively CEO of the Royal Africa Company, and instrumental in promoting and expanding the slave trade.
Funnily enough, the story of Colston’s statue tracks wider historical shifts. It wasn’t erected by him or even in his lifetime, but almost 200 years after he died by a merchant named James Arrowsmith. When it was erected, slavery had become illegal, and in fact the British empire saw itself as being very anti-slavery: the Royal Navy had been going out and fighting it. So even when that statue went up, Colston’s history of slave trading was edited out entirely. One speech mentioned the fact that he had made some of his wealth in the West Indies, but that was literally all that was said.
The reason that he was presented as a virtuous son of Bristol was because Arrowsmith was among those who were terribly worried about the rise of socialism. They were trying to present philanthropy as an alternative: responsible, bourgeois citizens who act virtuously to benefit the rest of society. So the statue was very much erected in a 19th-century context of trying to shore up civic society. But then, in the early 20th century, people began to really examine Colston’s involvement in the history of slavery, and the conversation started to shift. By the 1990s, there was a loud chorus of people criticising him.
It’s an example of how someone’s reputation can go up and down throughout history, and how the people erecting a statue can have a very specific agenda that the person the statue depicts would not have recognised at all. Colston lived in a world in which “socialism” just wasn’t a word, and he certainly wouldn’t have understood the opposition to it – nor why there was so much opposition to his own career. So the story of his statue reflects big changes in society and thinking.
Are there other statues that you think particularly reflect changing historical and social currents in that way?
Yes, many of them do, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which the meanings and debates surrounding them shift. A good example of this is a pair of identical statues of King Leopold II of the Belgians, who ran the Congo Free State in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s an awful, really upsetting story of mismanagement of what was essentially his private colony. Stories of the abuses that took place there became public, and there was a huge international outcry against him from extremely famous people including Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle and Booker T Washington. The Belgian government removed the Congo Free State from Leopold’s control, and he died in disgrace in 1909.
A statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II is left coated in spray paint following a Black Lives Matter protest in Brussels. The monument has long been at the centre of debate about Belgian abuses in the former Congo Free State. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)
But then the First World War erupted and people’s thoughts began to move on. By the 1920s, the Belgian royal family were going to great lengths to try to rehabilitate Leopold’s reputation. They suggested that the stories of the abuses in the Congo Free State weren’t true, that he was actually a great man, and they began putting up statues of him. Two identical statues were erected in the 1920s: one in Brussels and the other in what was then called Léopoldville, which is now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC].
The two statues have had very different fates. The campaign to rehabilitate Leopold went really quite well in Belgium, so the one in Brussels stayed up mostly without incident right through until the 1990s. At that point, people started to talk again about what happened in the Congo, and to question whether Leopold was responsible. The subject has now become really controversial, and over the past decade or so the Brussels statue has been so often covered in red paint and graffiti that they must be spending an absolute fortune having to clean it off the whole time. It’s become a real focus for protests, and the Belgian authorities have indicated that they are now seriously considering removing it or at least recontextualising it in some way.
Meanwhile, the statue in the DRC has undergone a different fate. It was pulled down in 1967, soon after the nation gained independence, and dumped behind a shed with a whole load of other colonial statues. But then in 2005, without warning, it went back up. The reason was nothing to do with the Belgians; instead, the then culture minister, Christophe Muzungu, thought that colonial statues were an important part of Congolese heritage, and that it was vital to look at the whole picture, whether good or bad.
This turned out to be a very controversial point of view that almost nobody agreed with, and the statue was pulled down again the same day and removed to the grounds of the national museum in Kinshasa. It just shows how debates around statues often don’t get settled, and the fact that different generations will have different perspectives means that the tides of history will rise and fall. So we should definitely expect that the conversations about these kinds of historical statues will be ongoing.
Did your understanding of statues and the debates around them shift as a result of having written this book?
Absolutely. Debates about statues are often posed in very simplistic primary colours: conservatives love statues, progressives hate statues. And of course, that’s not universally true at all. It very much depends on the context. For instance, when people in Ukraine pulled down statues of Lenin in 2014 and 2015, many conservatives rejoiced because they felt that it represented a casting off of the communist past – whereas some progressive commentators weren’t sure how to interpret it. So there are no simple answers, and it certainly isn’t a simple debate. Every statue has a different context and meaning, and they can also come to mean very different things from the original intention when they were erected. Whoever puts them up, the statue exists in a society that changes around them – and these discussions are worth having because they lead us into such fascinating histories.
Some people might argue that we have had plenty of time for conversation about these statues, and now is the moment to just pull them all down. What would your response be?
I come to a different conclusion: I don’t think we need to pull all statues down, but I think that it’s absolutely worth all of us, as communities, having discussions about our values and what represents us and what we want in our public spaces. In my opinion there’s no need to pull down anything that generally gives joy and pleasure. But there are also absolutely cases where these emblems are causing serious hurt, and do need to be looked at: we’ve seen that, for example, in the way in which some Confederate statues in the US have become rallying points for extremist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
I don’t think we need to pull all statues down, but it’s absolutely worth all of us, as communities, having discussions about what we want in our public spaces
In other words, we need to make sure that we do not, as it were, set our entire communities and civic spaces in stone. There’s no beauty in causing pain, and I think that if a statue is causing serious pain, then we need to have a discussion about how to solve that problem.
How would you like people to regard historical statues?
Similar themes emerge in many of these stories, but I’d encourage people to avoid trying to have a one-size-fits-all response. We should think about statues as individual objects with a specific context.
The other key point is that statues are a great way to start exploring history. Very few British people outside Bristol had probably heard of Colston before his statue was pulled down, but we are now having discussions about who he was, what he did, and why his statue went up so much later. That doesn’t necessarily mean we always have to pull down a statue to start a conversation, but I think we can take the opportunity now that these discussions are happening.
There are plenty more controversial statues still standing, too: there’s a campaign now to remove one in Whitehall in London that depicts [18th-century imperial governor] Robert Clive, for instance. Rather than panicking, we should say: “Okay, let’s look again at Clive.” He isn’t taught about very much in schools now, and I suspect that many people wouldn’t be able to tell you much about him – through no fault of their own. So let’s learn more about these kinds of figures, have these discussions, and discover more about our history.
Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and screenwriter whose previous books include Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World (Simon & Schuster, 2016). She wrote the 2017 feature film Churchill as well as episodes of the Netflix historical drama series Medici
This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.