'Some Monuments Really Should Be Torn Down,' Says WWII Historian Keith Lowe

In his new book, Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World War II Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves, award-winning historian Keith Lowe asks whether we should be held hostage by the values of our communal history and whether monuments erected in the past need to remain as stagnant reminders of a bygone era.

In this edited Q&A, Lowe discusses the role of public monuments and what we should do with those that offend current sensibilities.

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Prisoners Of History book cover

Why this book? Why now?
Now, more than ever before, we are beginning to question our collective memory of the past. There is a huge amount of anger and passion in play, especially when it comes to our public monuments—not only in the USA, but all around the world. This book is an attempt to pause, take a step back and look at what our monuments really mean.

What role do you think monuments should serve?
A good monument will remind us not only of our history, but of the values that we hold dear. Some of the most important monuments in my book have been constructed on sites where huge world events took place: I'm thinking of Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Stalingrad. These are important places where we can remember the traumas of our past—maybe lay a wreath, or say a few words of prayer. But most monuments say much more about our identity than our history. They are really just big, concrete expressions of who we think we are.

Monuments immortalize values and accomplishments. What happens when those values change with time? Should we tear down the monuments we no longer agree with?
Some monuments really should be torn down. If they offend almost every-one, why should we keep them up? But there are also much more creative things we can do with our problematic monuments. We can add to them, or put counter-monuments alongside them. We can take them down from their plinths and lay them on their side. Other countries have done some very clever things with their monuments, and I cover some of them in the book.

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Author, Keith Lowe LIZA MESSING

When deciding whether to let a monument stand, is it appropriate to consider the intentions of the people who erected it? Or just how it affects people today?
Of course we should take the original intentions into consideration. But it's not the people of yesteryear who have to live with these statues. Monuments are given pride of place in our public spaces, so we really need to weigh up what's more important to us: the memory of who we once were or the celebration of who we are now.

Do you have a favorite memorial?
Either the vast statue of Mother Russia in Volgograd or the Soviet war memorial at Treptower Park in Berlin. The Russians really know how to use grandeur and scale to create a lasting impression.

Do we need to reconsider before erecting new monuments?
Before we do so, we should stop and think carefully about not only what but also who they represent. If these things are to stand for hundreds of years, they need to be accepted by all of us: Black and white, men and women, rich and poor.

How are you coping with the pandemic?
Badly! All the archives and libraries in Britain and Europe are currently closed, which makes it difficult to do any proper research. And I really miss speaking to live audiences. But I'm lucky—I have a nice office at home, and I'm used to spending long periods of self-isolation with my head in my books.

Do you have any favorite podcasts?
I love listening to This American Life over lunch. The BBC game show Just A Minute always makes me laugh.