Brutal Monuments for Complex Memories

Public monuments have power. They can be large or small, extravagant or minimalistic. They can be beautiful, inspiring, moving and tragic. Which is why it’s so important that we take care when engaging in acts of collective memory. A poorly executed monument can be offensive, trivializing, ugly and upsetting.

More importantly, once you set up a public monument the public can – and will – interact with it. They found this out rapidly last summer in Budapest when they set up a new memorial to the victims of the German occupation. It’s rather small in an ill-conceived location, directly on the edge of a road so that traffic continually blocking it. It looks kind of shoddy, which I suppose is what you get when you build your memorials in the dead of night. Hint: if your memorial is the sort of thing that has to be built under cover of darkness and under guard from the police – don’t. It has been called a ‘forgery of history’.

If you can get a picture of it from the right angle (and don’t know what’s being portrayed) it looks semi-decent, mostly because its true size is unclear and its location isn’t obvious:

If this picture was more honest there'd be a blurry car in front of that angel.

If this picture was more honest there’d be a blurry car in front of that angel.

Not great, but not the end of the world. Of course, it being a public monument and there being a public willing to express how they felt about it, it ended up more like this:

Hint: the armed and uniformed men are not an honour guard.

Hint: the armed and uniformed men are not an honour guard.

Now imagine if a poorly thought-out monument took up the space of an entire city block, on land which had been designated for a federal court building but had been quietly re-distributed. Picture a structure designed to appear just as brutal as the events it is meant to commemorate, towering over the visitors to the site.

You’re probably picturing the planned Canadian memorial to the Victims of Communism. In case you weren’t, allow me to assist you:

With mood lighting to guarantee that even the dark won't spare your eyes!

With mood lighting to guarantee that even the dark won’t spare your eyes!

I won’t go into detail with the problematic location in the parliamentary district of Ottawa, next door to the Supreme Court. That’s been covered here, and elsewhere extensively.
I won’t discuss the lack of transparency and the obvious partisanship behind the choice of design and location, discussed extensively here.
I can’t address all of the numerous issues with this monument here, but let me discuss just a few.

First of all, the group behind this project (Tribute to Liberty – don’t even get me started on their name) claims that this monument will commemorate “100 million lives lost under communist regimes”. Numbers like that are problematic in this context. Quantifying victimization is always difficult – even with the extensive records recovered from the Holocaust we still say the total victims comprised an estimated 11 million, of which an estimated 6 million were Jewish. These are educated estimates and likely (horrifyingly) close to the mark. But to try and quantify something as diffuse and enduring as the victims of an ideology that dominated huge portions of the globe for about half a century? Without even admitting that your number may not be precise? That’s a hard sell.

As well, by focusing on ‘lives lost’ we trivialize the fact that totalitarian regimes need not kill a person to victimize them. What of the survivors? Moreover, what of the victims of totalitarian regimes that didn’t claim to be communist?

Second of all, I struggle with the idea of a monument to this scale for events which happened half a world away. It seems to me that if we must have a memorial to the victims of Communism at all (and I’m not convinced that we should) we could be more modest about our own role and more sensitive to the complexity of history. Can we be so strident in our monuments, given our role in the Cold War? We (sort of) refused to interact with (most) Communist countries and were (slightly) less paranoid at home than the USA under McCarthy. We were the experts of the strongly-worded but non-interventionist moral stand.

This is what jumped to mind when I saw the design for the memorial. I wish I was joking.

This is what jumped to mind when I saw the design for the memorial. I wish I was joking.

Finally, to return to the idea of picking and choosing who we remember: there are going to be names of specific victims on this monument. How are those names going to be chosen? You can choose one yourself! That is, as long as the suggested name is accompanied with a $1000 donation. That’s right. The best way to choose victims of a regime which oppressed them by denying them their property and often the bare minimum of resources necessary to keep them alive is by choosing the ones whose descendants can afford it. Good thing this was advertised in a tasteful manner.

No wait, actually it wasn’t.

The implication being that if you didn’t donate in time, the world will forget the suffering your loved one endured under communism? Smooth move, Tribute to Liberty.

And of course, the moment this thing is erected the public is going to interact with it. Remember the Budapest memorial? With a structure this large, having generated this much controversy, not accounting for what people might do with it is a serious gamble.

How much to make them give up on this awful idea, I wonder?

Would it be enough to stop you before it's too late?

Would it be enough to stop you before it’s too late?

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