‘Denkmal’ — ‘time to think’
Now and then societies go through growing pains. This is one of those times, and the only way out is through.
As we debate the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols, many countries are reckoning with their own colonial pasts and current racial inequities. This is a time to reflect. No one wants to obliterate history, or to blame today’s Spanish for the dark deeds of Ferdinand and Isabella. It’s just time to evolve again.
Coincidentally, I’ve just learned that the German word for “monument” is “denkmal,” which literally means “time to think.” The purpose of a monument or memorial is to make us think. Let us keep that in mind and ask ourselves what message any certain monument or symbol is designed to convey.
The latest scholarship suggests man has been intentionally creating images since as far back as 700,000 BCE. (Look up the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs.) Images and words have purpose and contain messages, which are conceived within the contemporary context of the time. Messages delivered through art, literature and other means need to be understood in context. I’m offering some examples to support my position on Confederate symbols.
Let’s start with a local example. Two years ago the Keene Central School had plans to perform the play “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Harper Lee’s classic novel was required reading for most of us in high school.
Sadly, the school board decided to cancel that performance on the grounds that the N-word in the script was “too controversial.” My English teacher knew how to teach us what that word meant, where it came from and why it was in the novel. We all understood. Uttering that word on stage in that context would have elevated the conversation about race. I thought squandering that teachable moment was cowardly. Art and literature are reflections of the human condition, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. But it pushes us to be better.
On the other hand, using Redskins as the name for a sports team is unacceptable. “Redskin” is a racial slur referring to Native Americans whose scalps were trophies for white invaders, who slaughtered them and stole their land. Native peoples are still facing injustice today. Would you call a team the “Los Angeles N*****s?” The “Bronx Sp*cs?” Your misplaced nostalgia doesn’t matter. “Indian on Indian” killing doesn’t matter. End of discussion.
The swastika is a prime example of the power of images and context. Swastika is an ancient Indian Sanskrit word meaning “well-being.” The symbol was adopted by many cultures and widely used in textiles, folk art, product logos and mythology for centuries. Then the Nazis hijacked it. It will never again be associated with well-being, Thor’s hammer or anything else.
In Germany, Nazi artifacts are relegated to places where they are given historical context to educate, not celebrate. I have visited German World War II cemeteries. They are dark and somber. They commemorate; they don’t glorify. You’ll never see Johann proudly waving his Nazi flag because his granddaddy served under the Fuhrer. (Besides, the symbol is illegal, but even if he could, he wouldn’t — he would be shunned.)
I recently read about German soldiers attending the 75th anniversary celebrations of D-Day in Normandy. Several were quoted as saying they felt good, not ashamed, about standing alongside Allied soldiers in their German uniforms, because now they gathered under the flag of RECONCILIATION.
What about the Founding Fathers? Yes, they were wealthy, landed slave owners. That was the accepted norm in the 18th century. But even then, abolition was already being discussed. Did the Founders themselves all reach the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights in their lifetime? No. Did the words “equal” and “free” apply to every human being at that time? Absolutely not.
But — they were products of the French Enlightenment. These Lumieres were progressives. They read. They studied. They wrote. They had ideas. They were philosophers and inventors. They were the “academic elites” (so reviled today) of their time. They aspired to a humanist ideal bigger than themselves.
No, we shouldn’t destroy monuments to Washington or Jefferson. As enlightened seekers of truth and justice, I believe that if they were here today, their propensity for progressive thinking would have them standing on the side of racial justice.
By the time of the American Civil War, many countries had already abolished slavery on moral grounds. The U.S. was relatively late getting on that bandwagon because slave labor gave Southern aristocrats their opulent mansions on wealthy plantations. So they waged war against their country to maintain the right to own other human beings. They lost.
Confederate monuments were mostly erected after Reconstruction, in the beginning of the 20th century. Why? Because freed Black Americans were a threat to the white status quo, and the losers needed to glorify their immoral “struggle.” Denkmal. The monuments were expressly intended to remind freed Blacks that white supremacy was still the rule.
Similarly, recall the day the White House hosted Navajo leaders. Not only did our sociopathic president use the “Pocahontas” line while they stood next to him, but the photo op took place under a portrait of Andrew Jackson, of all people. What message did that send? How sickening.
There is no redeeming value worth admiring in Confederate monuments and symbols, especially since they’ve been adopted by white supremacist groups. They no longer belong on state flags or on public grounds for hero worship, any more than Nazi flags belong in public squares in Germany. They are part of our history, and we need to know about them. Relocate them to museums, or otherwise put them into context. Even today’s military leaders want the names of these traitors removed from military bases. It’s time.
We have a choice to make. Are we going to continue on this ignorant race to the bottom, or will we do like the grown-up countries do: Own our mistakes, show some remorse, and aim for reconciliation? What do we want America’s denkmaler to say?
Annette Scheuer lives and works in Saranac Lake. She has degrees in art history and French studies, and taught French language and culture for 25 years, including 11 years at Paul Smith’s College.