As Winston Churchill once said: „History is written by the victors“. Generally President Trump is not known as a student of history. But yesterday, during a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in New York, he unwittingly waded into a complex debate about history and memory that has roiled college campuses and numerous cities over the past several years.
Asked about the white nationalist rally that ended in violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Trump defended some who had gathered to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee, and criticized the „alt-left“ counter protesters who had confronted them.
„Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,“ Mr. Trump said. „So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.“
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the president noted, were also slave owners. „I wonder, is it George Washington next week?“ the president said. „And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?“
„You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?“ he added, comparing the removal of statues to „changing history.“
It´s an important question: Where does it stop?! And – just what counts as erasing history – is a question that scholars and others have found themselves asking, in much more nuanced ways, as calls have come to remove monuments not just to the Confederacy, but to erstwhile liberal heroes and pillars of the Democratic Party like Andrew Jackson (a slave owner who, as president, signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans) and Woodrow Wilson (who as president oversaw the segregation of the federal bureaucracy).
„The debates that started two or three years ago have saturated the culture so much that even the president is now talking about them,“ a professor of history at Yale stated, which earlier this year announced that it would remove John C. Calhoun’s name from a residential college.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard, who is credited with breaking down the wall of resistance among historians to the idea that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, said that the answer to President Trump’s hypothetical question about whether getting rid of Lee and Jackson also meant junking Washington and Jefferson was a simple „No!“
There is a crucial difference between leaders like Washington and Jefferson, imperfect men who helped create the United States, she explained, and Confederate generals like Jackson and Lee, whose main historical significance is that they took up arms against it.
Gordon-Reed said, that this was not about the personality of an individual and his or her flaws. It was about men who organized a system of government to maintain a system of slavery and to destroy the American union.
As for the idea of erasing history, it’s a possibility that most scholars do not take lightly. But the director of the American Historical Association, said that the president’s comments failed to recognize the difference between history and memory, which is always shifting.
Altering monuments did not mean changing history. „You’re changing how we remember history.“
Some critics of Confederate monuments have called for them to be moved to museums, rather than destroyed, or even left in place and reinterpreted, to explain the context in which they were created. Most Confederate monuments were constructed in two periods: the 1890s, as Jim Crow had been established, and in the 1950s, during a period of mass Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.
But what does „remembering history“ mean? It is our historical consciousness. Removing statues also means to whitewash our history by pretending that some things never happened. Is that our future way to deal with facts!?
I look at the situation in the southern states of America with sadness. Why are the liberals pulling down statues of their historical leaders and heroes?! They should be left alone, as they are part of our history. Whether you like them or not, has nothing to do with the fact, that these people once existed- and they did act! So they made history. It´s not up to us, living today, trying to change those things, what we actually can´t. We – as contemporaries of today – do not have the right to vandalize or destroy these statues and monuments being set to make us memorize historical facts.
Don´t forget: destroying monuments is also a way groups like ISIS deal with history.
And we are not like them …