Most Nazi analogies are facile and flawed. The same goes for most counterfactual exercises. But, at times, both can be instructive. So bear with us.
Imagine that after World War II ended in 1945, Germany spent decades erecting memorials to German soldiers, generals, and political leaders, as well as to the Nazi cause.
Imagine that this process started slowly, but picked up steam between the 1970s and 1990s, when hundreds of monuments went up across Germany – in town squares, on university campuses, and at battlefields.
Imagine, too, that these memorials said nothing about the racist ideology of the Nazi Party, not to mention the Holocaust. Instead, they highlighted the bravery of German troops and the nobility of their fight for the fatherland.
Finally, imagine that this wave of Nazi memorialization coincided with the passage of new laws that disenfranchised and discriminated against Jews and a campaign of violence that killed, on average, two Jewish people a week for three decades.
What would we think of these Nazi monuments? And how would we judge Germans who today argue that they are simply tributes to fallen ancestors, that they are nothing more than benign commemorations of the past?
We would say that these monuments are historical lies. We would denounce those who defended them. The prospect of Nazi memorialization is outrageous and abhorrent.
Yet to some Americans, the reality of Confederate memorialization is not. Some Americans continue to defend Confederate monuments, despite the fact that the history of these memorials closely resembles the counterfactual outlined above.
Confederate monuments – which were erected primarily, though not exclusively, in the South – ignore the fact that the Confederacy was founded to perpetuate slavery and white supremacy. Instead, southern soldiers are lauded for their courage, and the Confederate struggle is celebrated as a righteous effort to defend hearth, home, and states’ rights.
And most of this country’s more than 700 Confederate statues were put up long after 1865, when the conflict they memorialize ended. This includes the 1924 Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally led to three deaths and numerous injuries this past weekend, and the 1925 Confederate memorial in Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which was removed early Wednesday.
Starting in the 1890s, cresting in the first decade of the twentieth century, and lasting into the 1930s, this wave of Confederate memorialization dovetailed with the rise of Jim Crow across the South – and beyond.
In community after community, whites used segregationist laws and customs to render African Americans second-class citizens, while, at the same time, terrorizing black people with lynch mobs. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 4,075 lynchings of African Americans in twelve southern states between 1877 and 1950.
White southerners’ commemorative landscape provided symbolic justification for this campaign of racial terrorism and for the Jim Crow culture that nurtured it.
Confederate statues thus stand today as criminal evidence. They do not testify to a literal crime – as would be the case with Nazi monuments in Germany, where all Nazi symbols are outlawed – but rather to historical and moral malfeasance.
It is a crime that countless white southerners felt justified in memorializing the attempt to destroy the United States in defense of slavery. It is a crime that they erected monuments that helped blind generations of Americans to the ignoble cause of the Civil War. And it is a crime that they used these memorials to bolster a violent regime of racial repression long after slavery had been abolished.
Reasonable people can disagree about what, exactly, should be done with Confederate statues. For our part, we’ve previously argued that wholesale removal of these monuments amounts to the destruction of criminal evidence and that adding contextualizing plaques to the statues to explain their real history and meaning might better facilitate a reckoning with the region’s pernicious past.
Events over the past two years, particularly the Charlottesville tragedy, we admit, make this position less tenable.
The one thing we should all agree on is that we cannot allow Confederate statues to remain as they are. This is especially so after this past weekend, which showed that the memorials stand poised to become totems of a reinvigorated white supremacist movement.
White supremacists propagate a host of lies and distortions, but last weekend they revealed a critical truth about Confederate monuments. Those who gathered in Charlottesville clearly and loudly told the world that memorials to the Confederacy symbolize a belief in white racial superiority. On this one point, we should listen to them.
Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle are professors of history at California State University, Fresno. Their book “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy” will be published by The New Press next spring. Connect with them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org .