Donald Trump on Charlottesville: What Does It Mean to Topple a Statue?

Confederate Statue
Police wearing riot gear guard a statue of a Confederate soldier in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. August 22. Jonathan Drake/Reuters

President Donald Trump ventured into historical analysis last week, amid a controversy over the removal of Confederate statues in some Southern towns.

"You can't change history, but you can learn from it," he tweeted, referencing activists campaigning to bring down monuments to men who fought on the side of slaveowners in the Civil War. "Robert E. Lee. Stonewall Jackson—who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish."

Trump's interjection, referring to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two of the United States' founding fathers, provoked controversy and kept discussion of America's past in the headlines. Days before, the death of an anti-fascist counter protesting a demonstration against the removal of a statue of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, had catapulted the debate over Confederate icons into the U.S. mainstream.

The debate highlighted much about U.S. history and its commemoration, with several states taking down statues memorializing the Confederacy and other, non-Confederate figures being defaced. The debate has stoked passions, and its focus on monuments echoes similar movements elsewhere.

What is it about the removal of a statue that contains such symbolic power? Why does it create moments of such high political drama? And what is the best destination for a monument that's been deposed? Here's a look at three examples of debates over such icons worldwide from recent history.

Rhodes Must Fall—Oxford, U.K. and Cape Town, South Africa

On April 9, 2015, one of the towering figures of British imperialism was pulled from his perch in Cape Town, in present-day South Africa, once a British colony. Following a prolonged protest by students and their allies, authorities removed a statue of British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes from the grounds of the University of Cape Town that had stood there since 1934.

"For far too long our heritage landscape has been viewed through the prism of our colonizers and we have got to challenge that," South African culture minister Nathi Mthethwa said in support of the decision by the university's council.

Meanwhile, another group of student activists, this time based at the University of Oxford, U.K., were getting ideas. Another statue of Rhodes stood (and, despite campaigners' efforts, still stands) in Oxford, on a wall of Oriel, one of more than 30 colleges that make up the ancient institution.

"Symbols matter, and statues really symbolize what a community, or institution, or even country imagines itself to represent," says Brian Kwoba, a professor at the University of Memphis who was among the founders of the British "Rhodes Must Fall" movement when studying at the university in 2015. The removal of Rhodes' statue in Cape Town represented something exciting, he says: "We saw that as both a tactical and strategic stroke of brilliance for opening a discussion about much bigger issues than just a statue."

Rhodes, a founder of the De Beers diamond firm, was at the center of British activities in South Africa in the late 19th century, and as prime minister of what was then called the Cape Colony oversaw the removal of black people from their lands. By targeting the statue of one of the British empire's quintessential figures, students knew they would open a debate about his legacy and, by extension, colonialism and Oxford's relationship to it, including a history curriculum dominated by white figures.

In the end, they didn't achieve their founding mission: Rhodes remains on the side of Oriel college. Says Kwoba: "The other side [of the debate] also understands precisely that if you allow people to discuss the statue, it's like…opening a Pandora's box, if you will, that will almost inherently and automatically need to include many other things."

Rhodes Must Fall did start a debate in the national media, and Oxford in May updated its history curriculum so that it is compulsory for history students to take at least one paper in non-British and non-European history (though the university says this was part of a separate review process and not a response to Rhodes Must Fall).

But, Kwoba says, Britain may not be ready for the reckoning with its past that actually toppling such a statue would entail. "Statues tend to represent regimes." he says. "In Eastern Europe…the statues of Stalin, Soviet-era statues, were brought down in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall. That was really a symbol for the regimes in those countries changing."

"The fact that there are these Confederate statues in the U.S., or the Rhodes-type statues in Britain, shows that the regime during which those forces really lived hasn't really come down," he continues.

"That is the regime of white supremacy, the regime of colonial or imperial violence."

Rehousing Soviet statues—Memento Park, Hungary

Kwoba is right: across many countries in central and Eastern Europe in the years following the fall of the Iron Curtain, ordinary people and their new governments marked the journey into a fresh era with a revolt against the austere effigies of Stalin, Lenin, Marx and the rest of the Soviet pantheon.

Some fell near-instantly after the old regimes fell. Others remained for years: in Ukraine, the Euromaidan revolution of 2013 saw the impromptu destruction of many of the country's remaining Lenin statues. The Soviet paraphenalia left in Eastern Europe is still controversial; in July, Russian lawmakers suggested bringing sanctions against Poland for its plans to remove Red Army monuments.

Wherever the Soviet statues came down, there remained the question of what to do with the monuments. Should they be destroyed? Disappeared? Or preserved for future generations to study?

In Hungary, where the Communist Party left power in 1989 and the last Soviet soldier was withdrawn in 1991, the new rulers swiftly removed many statues of the former union. But two years later, in 1993, the capital, Budapest, opened a new park to house the deposed sculptures. Among them is a pair of bronze boots; a replica of all that remained of a once-proud statue of Stalin in central Budapest, torn down in Hungary's unsuccessful 1956 revolt against its Communist regime.

The so-called "Memento Park" is there still, visited by a crowd composed of half Hungarians and half tourists, according to Dora Szkuklik from the park's management team. Local visitors come, she says, for a range of reasons, whether to educate younger members of their family about the not so distant past or to "simply recall their youth."

But Ákos Eleőd, who designed the park, said it was intended to examine Hungary's future as much as its past. "This Park is about dictatorship," he said of his work, quoted on the park's website. "And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this Park is about democracy.

"After all, only democracy can provide an opportunity to think freely about dictatorship. Or about democracy, come to that! Or about anything!"

Toppling Saddam Hussein—Firdos Square, Baghdad, Iraq

It is one of the few triumphant images of the U.S. and U.K.'s 2003 invasion of Iraq that remains in the public consciousness. In Firdos Square in the heart of the capital, American soldiers and jubilant locals toppled a huge sculpture of their doomed dictator.

In what was viewed in America as a poignant symbol of the oppressed working together with their liberators, U.S. Marines placed a vast noose around Hussein's neck, and fed a chain from the statue to a rumbling tank, then pulled him from his plinth while locals threw stones and set about the monument with sledgehammers.

But, it later transpired that the episode, particularly its telling, may have been less significant than it appeared. According to a New Yorker story from 2011, the toppling "was certainly a legitimate and dramatic story—proof that Baghdad was falling under American control. But problems with the coverage at Firdos soon emerged, including the duration, which was non-stop, the tone, which was celebratory, and the uncritical obsession with the toppling."

And Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy, whose regiment toppled the statue, told the magazine that he and his men considered the "buzzkill," of not bringing the statue down.

"Put your virtual-reality goggles on," he continued. "What would that moment have been if we hadn't? It would have been some B reel of Iraqis banging away at this thing and eventually losing interest and going home. There was a momentum, there was a feeling, this atmosphere of liberation. Like a kid trying to whack a piñata and he's not going to get it with a blindfold on, so let's move the piñata so he can knock it. That was the attitude—keep the momentum going."

Florian Göttke, an artist whose book Toppled collected hundreds of press and amateur photographs of the topplings of statues of Saddam Hussein, says it is hard to separate out the complex "mix" of propaganda and genuine local sentiment in the bringing down of Saddam's statues and press coverage of it.

But, he says, in the West the collapse of the dictator's monuments came to shape the way we understand conflict overseas. "It took on a life of its own," he says. "And later during the Arab Spring you'd see a lot of cartoons [in Western newspapers] of this toppling statue.

"This media image of the falling statue became then this icon for regime change."