Prisoners of History: An interview with Keith Lowe

Keith Lowe's book on monuments is even more prescient in the wake of the protests against historical statues in the summer of 2020. Keith sat down with us to discuss Prisoners of History: What Monuments Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves.
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From Keith Lowe, author of Prisoners of History

Over the past year there has been a great deal of controversy about statues and other monuments. Why do you think we have been getting so emotional about them? Have monuments always been this controversial?

No, monuments haven’t always been so controversial. I remember the days when people used to walk past them without even noticing that they were there. In fact, twenty years ago there was a lot of academic thinking about why monuments were so invisible. But now, suddenly, they’re headline news.

If you want to understand what’s been going on, I suppose you have to think about what monuments are actually for. On the one hand they’re supposed to commemorate historical figures or historical events – and once that history fades, the monuments also begin to fade into the background. But on the other hand they are also there to represent our values. A statue is never just a statue: it’s there to represent heroism, sacrifice, philanthropy, or some other virtue. Sometimes these virtues are timeless, but sometimes, when our values change, the old statues begin to look not just old-fashioned, but sometimes even offensive.

Our values have changed massively in the past 20 years or so. That’s why we’re suddenly so obsessed with these symbols. They represent old thinking, and old values – and a new generation wants to see them torn down and replaced with something that represents who we are today.

Your book describes 25 monuments around the world and the controversies that have surrounded them. All of these monuments are devoted to the Second World War. Why did you choose these particular monuments, rather than statues of Communists, or colonial figures, or other historical eras?

The Second World War is not only the most important event of the last century, but it is also one of the only events that every nation in the world has in common. Almost everyone remembers the Second World War in one respect or another. So what better way to demonstrate the differences between one nation and another? If we’re all supposed to be commemorating the same thing, how come our monuments to the war are all so different?

Mother Russia, Volgograd

I’ve come to see the Second World War as a kind of cinema screen onto which we project our own particular national myths about the past. So, for example, American monuments are all about honour and glory, and about how America liberated other nations during the war. British war monuments are also about a kind of quiet heroism – but also sometimes with a hint of empire thrown in. Russian monuments are all gigantic. The first chapter of the book is about the statue of Mother Russia in the city of Stalingrad (or what is today called Volgograd). It’s absolutely colossal: at the time it was built, it was the biggest statue in the world. The Russians want to show the world that they were the ones who made the biggest sacrifices, who were the biggest heroes, and who had the most powerful army.

These are the ideas that each of us are still propagating today. Lots of the monuments in the book weren’t built in 1945, but in the last 10 or 15 years. Vladimir Putin has approved at least fifty new monuments to the war in that time. There’s something about the Second World War that still appeals to us, even after all this time. But it appeals to us in very different ways, and that’s what makes it interesting.

But surely Second World War monuments aren’t nearly as controversial as some other monuments? I’m thinking of statues with links to slavery.

Oh but they are! A lot of the themes are exactly the same. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 we saw people tearing down statues of slave owners. Well, in Poland, exactly the same thing has happened to statues of the Soviet liberators. There used to be hundreds of memorials to Soviet soldiers across Poland, and symbols of friendship between the two nations. But in 2017 the Polish government started tearing them all down. They didn’t recognise the so-called ‘philanthropy’ of the Soviets any more than the BLM protesters recognised the so-called ‘philanthropy’ of Edward Colston.

And what about the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square? That too was vandalised by BLM protesters. That was fascinating, because it was a real clash of values. The protesters saw Churchill as a horrible racist and imperialist, whereas the Daily Mail and the Telegraph saw Churchill as the wartime hero who led us to victory. From a historian’s point of view, of course, both points of view are right – Churchill was simultaneously a great leader and a bit of a racist. But statues like this aren’t really about history, are they? They’re about the values we hold dear.

If statues aren’t about history, then why did you call your book Prisoners of History? Can you explain the thinking behind that title?

Well, there are various definitions of the word ‘history’, aren’t there? On the one hand you have a strict academic idea of what constitutes history: it’s a subject that involves the gathering of evidence, followed by a rounded and reasoned description of the past based on that evidence. But when most of us think about history, we don’t think of it in those terms. We think of it as a story about our past, complete with knights-in-shining-armour and damsels-in-distress. That’s the kind of history that’s represented by our monuments: it’s not just the academic idea of history – it also has a bit of memory and a bit of mythology thrown in.

The reason I called the book Prisoners of History is that we can’t help being captive to both of those definitions of history. Our myths and stories about the past make us who we are. But there’s also an objective truth about the past that might not match up to our cosy stories, and we can’t avoid that either. That’s why Colston’s statue was torn down – because people looked beyond the cosy myths at the actual history of what Colston did.  So the monuments themselves are just as much ‘prisoners of history’ as we are.

As a historian, did you agree with the toppling of statues last year, or would you have preferred them to remain standing? Is there an alternative to tearing them down?

As a historian, I suppose I would have liked to keep some of them. But as an ordinary citizen, I’m quite happy that lots of them came down. Like I said, statues are not just about history – they are also about values. When a monument has become deeply offensive to large numbers of people, then sometimes they’ve just got to go.

Grutas Park, Lithuania

That said, there are alternatives. We can move them to museums or sculpture parks, like they’ve done with lots of the old Communist monuments in Lithuania and Hungary. One of the places I describe in the book is Grutas Park in Lithuania, where they have statues of Stalin and Lenin and all kinds of other monsters from history. It’s a bizarre place – part sculpture park, part zoo and part children’s playground. They’ve put Lenin in a field full of llamas, which is a great way to undermine the gravitas he once used to have.

Another thing we can do to hold our monuments to account is to build something else alongside them – something that tells a different, and perhaps more truthful, story about our past. That’s what they’ve done in Budapest in front of one of their war monuments. The official monument portrays Hungary as a victim of the war – but the counter-monument in front of it tells a story of Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis.

So there are definitely ways in which we could keep some of our monuments, even some of our dodgy ones, and still hold them to account.

Of all the places that you visited while researching the book, which was your favourite?

Well, I’ve already mentioned Grutas Park in Lithuania. That place is truly bonkers! I also went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Nanjing in China, and various other places in Europe and America. I have chapters about each of them in the book. But I have to say that the Motherland statue in Volgograd was the most impressive. The sheer size of it is impossible to ignore. When you stand beneath it, you don’t have to be Russian to feel the weight of all that history – and of all that stone and iron – towering above you. If a good monument is supposed to make you feel something, then that statue works better than any other place I’ve visited.

Prisoners of History was published last summer, right at the time of the debate around statues, but for how long had you been thinking about the subject, and how long was the book in the making?

The Bomber Command Memorial

I’ve always visited Second World War monuments, and taken photos of them – when you’re a WWII historian, it goes with the job. But I didn’t really start looking at them properly, and analysing what they were actually saying, until about ten years ago. I was giving a TEDx talk in Athens about why we’re all so obsessed with the Second World War. In the talk I used the Bomber Command memorial as an example of how we only remember the bits of our history that make us feel cosy, and filter out the rest. That got me looking at all sorts of other monuments in a new way, and the idea for the book really grew from there. I had no idea that the whole world would suddenly go mad for monuments in 2017, and then again last year. I like to think that that makes me a trend setter…!

Are there some statues that are untouchable?  For example, when the Cenotaph was graffiti-ed there was widespread revulsion, and volunteers immediately began cleaning it.

Monuments for the victims of war are almost always untouchable. A hero can be knocked off his pedestal, but no-one wants to criticise a victim. The suffering that they went through makes them pure, saint-like, even if they weren’t like that in real life. Try criticising a Polish resistance fighter, or a victim of the Holocaust, and see what kind of reaction you get on Twitter! They might have been a horrible person in real life, guilty of all kinds of moral compromises – but the fact that they suffered, and the fact that they are representative of a larger tragedy, means that they are relatively safe from attack. Abstract representations of communal suffering are even more untouchable. An individual will always have flaws – that’s why even the statue of Winston Churchill is not immune to graffiti. But something like the Cenotaph, which represents whole generations of people who gave their lives for their country – well, what’s to criticise? It’s a monument that includes people of all classes, all ethnicities, both sexes. If you attack the Cenotaph, you’re effectively attacking us all.

Keith Lowe is the author of Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943, and Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War Two. His latest book is Prisoners of History: What Our Monuments Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves.