Amid threats of violence and white-supremacist protests, the city of New Orleans has begun removing four Confederate monuments, among them statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, the supreme military and political leaders of the Southern rebellion against the United States.
The Confederate monuments are memorials to the vilest cause in American history. The South went to war for one reason above all: to perpetuate the enslavement of black Americans. The dismantling of the statues is a long-overdue act of moral hygiene; it is appalling that they were ever erected in the first place. What other nation tolerates grand public memorials to its traitors?
Despite decades of blather about Southern “heritage,” the core message of the Confederate monuments — especially those erected after the collapse of Reconstruction — was never hard to decoct. They stood for bigotry and racial backlash, and for the willingness to take up arms in defense of human bondage. Naturally, Ku Klux Klan supporters like David Duke are among those protesting the statues’ removal.
It isn’t only in America that monuments to brutal past oppressors are belatedly being removed.
For more than a year, Poles have been debating whether to keep or get rid of the hundreds of monuments to the Red Army erected in their country after World War II. The memorials were put up to thank the Soviet Union for liberating Poland from the Nazis, and they went unchallenged during the 40-plus years of communist rule that followed that “liberation.”
But Poland is no longer ruled by Communists who toe Moscow’s line, and monuments to Soviet military valor can be denounced as the abominations they are. Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo said last year that it is a “natural, normal thing” that accolades to communist power in Poland’s public spaces be dismantled. Her government has been urging local authorities to demolish the monuments or relocate them to less conspicuous “education parks.”
Just like Klan sympathizers angrily protest the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans, Russian authorities fume as Poles cleanse their town squares of shrines to Soviet might. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has denounced Poland’s policy for having “profaned . . . Soviet-Polish brotherhood;” he accuses Poles of disparaging the sacrifice of “Soviet citizens who died in the fight against Nazism.”
It is true that vast numbers of Soviet troops fought in Poland, and many died, to defeat Nazi Germany — just as it is true that Confederate armies under Lee battled long and valiantly in defense of the South. In both cases that is an argument for the perpetual care of cemeteries and gravestones: for allowing dead soldiers to rest in peace, regardless of the cause for which they died. In Poland there has been no call by anyone to disturb Soviet tombs — and in Louisiana there has been no attempt to impinge on the serenity of Confederate cemeteries.
But respect for the dead is no excuse for glorifying the evil they fought to uphold.
The Red Army that defeated Nazi forces in Poland immediately turned its bayonets to the imposition of a communist dictatorship. What followed were roundups and torture, show trials and forced labor, economic theft and political repression, falsified history and totalitarian misery. And though the Soviet Union may have ended the war fighting Nazi Germany, it began as Hitler’s ally, colluding in the invasion of Poland and annexing half its territory.
Moscow could order its Polish satraps to install Red Army “gratitude” monuments across the land, but those monuments were always obscenities, forced tributes to the boot stamping on Poland’s face.
In a society liberated from tyrannical cruelty, monuments to the tyrants have no place. Massive Nazi swastikas were destroyed in Germany. Effigies of Saddam Hussein fell in Iraq. The statues of slavery’s defenders in New Orleans deserve the same fate, and so do the great granite testaments to the prestige and power of the Soviet Union.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.