Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies

Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies

by Sanford Levinson

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Twentieth Anniversary Edition with a new preface and afterword

From the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans in the spring of 2017 to the violent aftermath of the white nationalist march on the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville later that summer, debates and conflicts over the memorialization of Confederate “heroes” have stormed to the forefront of popular American political and cultural discourse. In Written in Stone Sanford Levinson considers the tangled responses to controversial monuments and commemorations while examining how those with political power configure public spaces in ways that shape public memory and politics. Paying particular attention to the American South, though drawing examples as well from elsewhere in the United States and throughout the world, Levinson shows how the social and legal arguments regarding the display, construction, modification, and destruction of public monuments mark the seemingly endless confrontation over the symbolism attached to public space.

This twentieth anniversary edition of Written in Stone includes a new preface and an extensive afterword that takes account of recent events in cities, schools and universities, and public spaces throughout the United States and elsewhere. Twenty years on, Levinson's work is more timely and relevant than ever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478004349
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/04/2018
Series: Public Planet Books
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 900,201
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Sanford Levinson is Professor of Law at the University of Texas Law School and the author and editor of numerous books, most recently Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today (with Cynthia Levinson).

Read an Excerpt


Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat. Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"

Robert Lowell wrote these lines about the monument located at the northeast corner of the Boston Common directly across the street from the Massachusetts State House. It memorializes the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, the first black regiment organized in a free state. It is usually called the "Shaw monument," after its central figure, Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the regiment, who was killed along with many of his comrades in the assault they led against Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863. (Their story was the basis of the movie Glory.) Anyone familiar with the tangled history of race relations in Boston can well appreciate the power of Lowell's simile.

Lowell could, however, just as easily be writing about many monuments in many cities and countries. Indeed, I will discuss public monuments in locales ranging from Moscow to Managua, Albania to Zimbabwe, not to mention a variety of American locales. In all of these places, one finds polities roiled in controversies attached to deciding who within a particular society should be counted as a hero worth honoring with the erection of a monument or the naming of a public space. Although as an American I am most interested in, and most of the pages below are devoted to, examples from the United States, I begin in Budapest, Hungary, with the fascinating tale of the Millennium Monument found there. Its vicissitudes wonderfully illustrate the central themes of this book; beginning in Budapest also underscores the ubiquity of the issues considered in this book.

The 1881 proposal of the monument, ostensibly to celebrate the millennium of Hungary's founding, was rooted, as is almost always the case with such campaigns by self-conscious politicians, in the political exigencies of the moment. As Hungarian historian András Gero aptly notes, it was also to function as a step in "an unprecedented drive towards modernization and the development of national consciousness, the main objectives of Budapest in its golden age." To be sure, the monument that was actually erected in the first decade of the twentieth century included statues of Hungarian national heroes going back to the conquest that established Hungary and the reign of Christianity-establishing King Stephen, who in 1001 accepted his crown from the Pope. Moreover, the archangel Gabriel had his own freestanding statue in the middle of the monument (and rising high above the other two sections) to signify the importance of Christianity to Hungarian national identity. Yet, if Hungarian identity was depicted as beginning in the mists of the millennial past, it also was inscribed in a specific narrative with what its sponsors no doubt deemed a wonderfully happy ending: Hungarian membership in the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the rule of the distinctly non-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. Had Bill Clinton been a nineteenth-century denizen of Budapest, one easily imagines him supporting the monument as a "bridge to the twentieth century" symbolizing the marvelous promise of ever greater imperial accomplishments. Thus Budapest citizens could observe statues of various Habsburgs, including Franz Joseph himself, sharing space with angels and other national heroes all incorporated into a satisfying story of national identity and historical progress.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire (and Franz Joseph) did not, of course, survive World War I. Indeed, when reading of the ambitious plans for the Millennium Monument, it is difficult to avoid thinking of Robert Musil's merciless satire of 1913 Vienna, A Man Without Qualities, in which hapless characters devote themselves to planning a great celebration of Franz Joseph's extended reign. (His reign had begun in 1848, the year of crushed rebellions and other hopes for transformative change, which perhaps reinforced the illusion that the tides of history could in fact be controlled.) The power of Musil's great postwar novel in part derives from the reader's knowledge of how the story will actually turn out, a knowledge denied the happily complacent haute bourgeoisie and governmental officials who inhabit the book. Apropos the specific theme of monuments, one might well note Musil's own mordant observation that "the most important [quality of monuments] is somewhat contradictory: what strikes one most about monuments is that one doesn't notice them. There is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments." Musil well captures the combination of hubris and pathos in the attempt by the monumentalizing generation to speak to and, ultimately, control the consciousness of their successors. All monuments are efforts, in their own way, to stop time. As Nietzsche put it, in his observations "On the Utility and Liability of History for Life," a "monumental" view of the past, a particular kind of consciousness instantiated in the physical stone of monuments, represents "a belief in the coherence and continuity of what is great in all ages, it is a protest against the change of generations and against transitoriness." History, of course, moves relentlessly to mock any such beliefs.

The humiliating defeat of Franz Joseph's Dual Monarchy generated the emergence of an independent (albeit territorially reduced) Hungary. Nothing would ever be the same, including the Millennium Monument. In 1919 events took what Gero describes as "a radical turn ... as the proletarian assumed power." Among other things, this led to a revisioning of the Habsburgs, who "were now presented as agents of feudal-capitalist oppression." Far from the statues becoming, as Musil suggests, "invisible," they were all too apparent, generating the same discomfort as a "fishbone in the throat." Of course, the thing to do when so afflicted is to remove the offender. The monument was thus stripped of its statues of members of the Habsburg dynasty, and the particular "statue of Franz Joseph directly associated with the regime that had lost the war was smashed to pieces." For better or worse, the radicals were rather quickly replaced by counterrevolutionaries who installed a monarchy whose legitimacy was based on the Dual Monarchy. Not surprisingly, "the Habsburgs resumed their place of honour" on the monument. Moreover, the site of the Millennium Monument also was designated as the proper place to put up a "heroes memorial." The specific heroes who were being commemorated were those thousands of Hungarians who had lost their lives fighting in World War I, altogether unsuccessfully, to "maintain the borders which had been in existence for 1,000 years. ... Ironically, the memorial was thus dedicated to the soldiers of a war in which they had lost everything they had been fighting for." Like many other societies, the Hungarians proved themselves thoroughly capable of organizing their public psyche around a "lost cause." The site of the monument and memorial became "an inseparable part of the capital and a national landmark," renamed Heroes Square in 1932.

Once more fate intervened in Hungary's destiny, as Hungary made yet another disastrously wrong choice in political and military allies. The aftermath of World War II swept away the conservative regime that had cast its lot with Nazi Germany; Hungary came within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, and a Communist regime came to power. Once again the monument reflected new political realities, as the Habsburg statues and reliefs were taken down and assigned, almost literally, to what Trotsky unforgettably dismissed as "the dustbin of history." In their place were statues of Istvan Bocskay, a seventeenth-century insurrectionist against the Habsburgs, together with reliefs of "his soldiers fighting imperial mercenaries." Substituting for the statue of Franz Joseph was one of Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848–49 revolt against the Habsburgs.

Although Gero suggests that the Communists "would gladly have wiped the monument, with its archangel and kings, from the face of the earth," they did not do so. After all, they too could use it for their own ideological purposes of forging a new Hungarian consciousness, not to mention that they were unwilling to pay the potential political costs of destroying what had become a central public symbol of the Hungarian nation. Still, a "monument [that] was intended to condense the whole of Hungarian history into a single, complex symbol" with a unified narrative building toward Franz Joseph and his Dual Monarchy has instead, in "the different forms" it has taken, "faithfully mirrored all the historical and political changes which have taken place in the course of its lifetime."

One might well have mixed reactions to this tale of a faraway monument in a society about which most of us know little and with which few of us have any emotional identification. Is it a somber tragedy or a Central- European high comedy emphasizing the ironies (and roundelays) of history? No doubt it is both, though readers will undoubtedly differ on which aspects of its history merit tears or laughter.

The fate of the Millennium Monument and its heroes memorial is a perfect illustration of the central topic of this book, which is how those with political power within a given society organize public space to convey (and thus to teach the public) desired political lessons. Changes in political regime sometimes awesome, as from Habsburg monarchy to Communist dictatorship and then from Communism to (some version of) liberal democracy often bring with them changes in the organization of public space. States always promote privileged narratives of the national experience and thus attempt to form a particular kind of national consciousness, yet it is obvious that there is rarely a placid consensus from which the state may draw. In particular, organizers of the new regime must decide which, if any, of the heroes of the old regime deserve to continue occupying public space. And the new regime will always be concerned if these heroes might serve as potential symbols of resistance for adherents among the population who must, at least from the perspective of the newcomers, ultimately acquiesce to the new order.

As one might well expect, many of the best examples of these issues are presented in the aftermath of Communism in Europe. Some of the most enduring memories of my only visit, in 1989, to Moscow involve the public statuary, posters, and flags that dominated the urban landscape. My family found our hotel, for example, by reference to a giant statue of Lenin that hovered over the square where it was located. Many of the people I spoke to about the great changes then sweeping what was still called the Soviet Union found it almost impossible to envision that these statues would ever disappear. Such a possibility would have signified changes even more portentous than those already coursing through Gorbachev's Soviet Union. My last memory of the Soviet Union is the statue of Lenin in front of the Finland Station in what was then called Leningrad. Given that Lenin had made his fateful return to Russia in 1917 at that very station, that statue in that venue generated a special resonance and helped to constitute the psychic reality that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It should go without saying that it was truly unimaginable in 1989 that the flag displaying the hammer and sickle would have disappeared within three years.

No doubt the reality is far different today, whether in Moscow, Budapest, or many other cities of Eastern Europe. Those who overthrow regimes often take as one of their first tasks the physical destruction of symbols and the latent power possessed by these markers of those whom they have displaced. Kenneth Branagh, in his film version of Hamlet, brilliantly evokes this by opening and closing his film with shots of what the screenplay describes as an "immense statue of a military hero," the murdered King Hamlet. At the film's beginning, it is as if Hamlet were still reigning, as is true in regard to the consciousness of his son, the Prince of Denmark. At the end of the film, however, the son (along with the murderous usurper) is dead, and soldiers of the Norwegian conqueror Fortinbras "tear at the great statue, hitting it continually with hammers, until with a mighty crash it falls." As the pieces of the statue fall (in slow motion), they "gradually obliterate the name HAMLET. For ever." Whatever the truth of the general proposition that "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," this is almost certainly true of monumental crowns, especially when faced with an aroused populace who view them as symbols only of their oppressors. Perhaps it was the memory of the transformations of the Millennium Monument that helped contribute to what may be the most permanent Hungarian contribution to political semiotics, the toppling of a statue of Stalin during the ill-fated 1956 revolution.

Nor is Budapest the only Central European capital that could tell a vivid story about the fate of its statue of Stalin. As the Rough Guide to Prague points out, "Prague's most famous moment is one which no longer exists. The Stalin monument, the largest in the world, was once visible from almost every part of the city: a 30 metre high granite sculpture portraying a procession of Czechs and Russians being led to Communism by the Pied Piper figure of Stalin." The sculptor of this gigantic 14,200 ton megalith which took some 600 workers a year-and-a-half to put up "committed suicide shortly before it was unveiled, leaving all his money to a school for blind children, since they, at least, would not have to see his creation." Unveiled in 1955 on the Communist holiday of May 1st, the monument lasted only seven years until, under "pressure from Moscow" (then ruled by Nikita Khruschev, who had famously denounced Stalin and his excesses), it was "blown to smithereens by a series of explosions spread over a fortnight in 1962." "All that remains above ground is the statue's vast concrete platform," which apparently is "a favorite spot for skateboarders." Sic transit gloria mundi.

The New York Times thus rightly emphasized by placement on page one the moment in August 1991 when, in the aftermath of the aborted coup against the government of Mikhail Gorbachev, a crowd in Moscow toppled the statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky. The statue had stood for many years in front of the Lubiyanka prison, itself the instantiation of the secret police and, therefore, of the worst excesses of Communist tyranny. Lawrence Weschler wrote in the New Yorker that "monuments all over the country of fierce icons of the longtime socialist-realist hegemony were being toppled and carted off" and, presumably, destroyed.

Surely, anyone who viewed this as a great moment for the cause of human freedom rejoiced as the symbols of the ideological walls came tumbling down? Well, not exactly. Even some strong anti-Communists confessed to a deep ambivalence at the destruction of these important cultural objects. Thus Weschler quotes Vitaly Komar, described as "formerly among the ancien régime's most notorious dissident artists":

This is a classic old Moscow technique: either worship or destroy. Bolsheviks topple czar monuments, Stalin erases old Bolsheviks, Khrushchev tears down Stalin, Brezhnev tears down Khrushchev, and now this. No difference. Each time it is history, the country's true past, which is conveniently being obliterated. And usually by the same people! In most cases, there weren't passionate crowds doing tearing down it was cool hands of officials, by bureaucratic fiat. Same guys who used to order our shows bulldozed now arranging these bulldozings.

Perhaps it is thinkable that state officials should have used their power to prevent the destruction of these statues or, at the very least, not called in state-owned bulldozers to collaborate with the inflamed populace. It surely seems bizarre, though, to subject Muscovite political authorities to criticism for failing to offer a more vigorous defense of the earlier regime's tribute to Dzerzhinsky and to the secret police system that he was honored for creating. One wonders if Komar would subject Boris Yeltsin to similar censure for calling in June 1997 for a national referendum on removing Lenin's embalmed body from Red Square, where, seen by millions of people, it served as a central shrine of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin apparently advocates giving Lenin, some seventy-three years after his death, a decent "Christian burial." Needless to say, the Communists who continue to dominate the Russian parliament are reported to be vehemently hostile to any such suggestions.


Excerpted from "Written in Stone"
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Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the 2018 Edition  xi
Written in Stone
An Introduction  1
Afterword  125
Acknowledgments  203

What People are Saying About This

Nathan Glazer

"A wonderfully wise and informed essay on the issue of how we commemorate the past when the past keeps on changing." -- Author of We Are All Multiculturalists Now

Eric Foner

Rarely has the question of how to memorialize our past received the thoughtful, incisive, and fair-minded analysis provided by Sanford Levinson.

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