What do Robert E. Lee and the “Living Memorial” in Budapest, Hungary have in common? Both have statues created in their honor which memorialize their life or place in history. So why are people so mad, mad enough to try to hide statuary or to vandalize or misappropriate them? How do they differ? Both have a large contingent of people today who revere the memory of the person or that place in history in the context of modern thinking, whether it is the American Civil War or the Holocaust.
While many honor the accomplishments of the Lee family in Virginia’s history, others feel disenfranchized by those honors and that is a regrettable, but natural response. They believe that by removing such objects, history may somehow be re-written, all shiny and new and cleansed of such personality defects as slave-keeping or fighting in a war on the losing side. By so doing, they make history largely inaccurate and this does poor service to those who seek to learn history, good or bad. Taking a teachable moment away from schoolchildren who wish to learn about their history also does them a great disservice. I believe such monuments should remain exactly where they are, even the Civil War “unknown soldier” that impedes traffic and forces vehicles to drive around it at the intersection of South Washington and Prince Streets in my hometown, Alexandria, Virginia.
Where Hungary and Virginia differ is that Virginians have apparently learned lessons from their 410-year history. Many Hungarians, on the other hand, have yet to come to terms with their World War II history. Specifically, there are many Hungarians who refuse to acknowledge their association with their Nazi occupiers; and as bizarre as it may seem, there are many more who revel in it and take pride in knowing they helped the Nazis round up and deport their neighbors to the death camps of Europe. To this day, I cannot find the exclusive inn that my great-grandparents owned and operated in Hungary. It must have been elegant because crown princes and dukes and kings reputedly stayed their while on hunting expeditions and my great-grandmother was supposed to have been one hell of a chef. It is unlikely we will ever recover this place, so it must remain a monument to the greed of the Hungarian government coupled with their increasing Holocaust denial.
The Hungarian “Liberty” monument in Budapest, erected three years ago, has become a lightening rod, attracting both the anti-monument crowds who believe the monument glosses over Hungarian duplicity in the Holocaust, as well as the pro-monument groups who believe the structure illustrates Hungarian victory over her German oppressors.
The danger in having permanent and physical monuments around us everywhere we go is when people assume the subject was a great person deserving emulation, even after history and time reveal the opposite. People may have done great things during their lifetime in founding a nation, such as Thomas Jefferson, but a few days ago, the quarters of his Negro slave and lover, Sally Hemmings, was believed to have been found at Monticello.
When museums and monuments are misappropriated for personal purposes, you will often find politicians standing next to them. You probably won’t find more offensive images than those of U.S. Congressman Clay Higgins who posted a “selfie” video of himself inside the crematoria at Auschwitz. The only purpose for such unseemly violations are to negate the events of the Holocaust. One cannot claim ignorance of the sanctity of the place, especially as there are signs reminding visitors to be respectful. Clay Higgins tried to use the backdrop of the death camp as an example of why the U.S. needed a “strong military”. What he promptly found out was that the swift outrage at his behavior was even stronger. Monuments are, after all, symbols. They represent the people who erected them and give insights into their patronage, the whys and wherefores. The Hungarian monument was erected at night, due to the vocal and prolonged protests at the site during its construction. This fact alone tells us why they should not have erected the monument at all. Monuments are, by and large, permanent displays of a people’s values and aspirations. This is precisely why Palestinians constantly erect monuments — to deceased terrorists.
Once again, this week at the United Nations, its entity, UNESCO, has determined that Jerusalem is not a Jewish city or even holy to Jews. In this matter, UNESCO is acting as a political agent ignoring the physical structures which act as modern monuments, including HaKotel. By claiming Israel an “occupying force” the Arab nations sitting on the UNESCO board have committed an historical absurdity. Why would Israel expend time and treasure protecting what is not hers by history and by right? Why would the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Jerusalem since antiquity be there today, if it was not a Jewish city? And how can a state “occupy” that which they already own? Jews in Israel today are another kind of monument, the living kind.