Sep 4, 2017 - World

How other countries have confronted their difficult pasts

The Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Markus Schreiber / AP

The white nationalist march at Charlottesville and President Trump's subsequent invocation of "history"and culture" brought the issue of monuments celebrating Confederate figures to the forefront of the national conversation, reigniting centuries' worth of tension in an already divided nation.

Confederate statues have usually been erected to glorify — not simply to remember — the Confederate cause, which is inextricably linked to slavery. Other countries have confronted their controversial pasts in starkly different ways.


The end of World War II saw a banning of the most overt reminders of Adolf Hitler's government — the swastika, Hitler's treatise Mein Kampf, and even the Nazi party itself — by the occupying Allied forces. Eventually, that ban would be codified into German law, which limits free speech as it pertains to the display of iconography relating to the Holocaust and the Nazi Party.

Summing it up: A University of Chicago law professor told Vox: "What Germany does is what Germany does. They learned different lessons…The lesson we learned is not to trust the government to decide what speech is okay and what speech is not okay."

A reminder: Holocaust memorials in Germany are often built into Nazi ruins — the one in Berlin was erected near the site of Hitler's bunker — as a reminder to citizens of the horrors of the past.


The Soviet Union went through a process of dismantling the system that allowed Joseph Stalin, whose reign led to the deaths of millions via famine, gulags, and executions, to maintain his power, appropriately known as de-Stalinization. Statues were toppled, the city of Stalingrad became Volgograd, and his body was removed from public display in Red Square.

Of note: With Russia's recent rise in nationalism, so has public opinion of Stalin. A poll earlier this year found that 46% of Russians had a positive view of Stalin, the highest in years, per WaPo.

For comparison: Per BBC Russia, there's still 2,771 statues of Lenin around Russia and a smattering around the former Soviet Union — plus, his body is still on display in Red Square — but, as the founder of the Soviet Union, his legacy isn't as linked to the brutality that came later under Stalin.


China also struggles with the shadow of Mao Zedong, another former leader who simultaneously modernized and terrorized his nation. While China grew into a world power under his leadership, he established a brutal cult of personality that led to mass imprisonment and executions and his Great Leap Forward led to famine that caused the deaths of millions.

Mao today: The Global Times, a state-run Chinese outlet, reported that there were only around 180 Mao statues left outdoors in China — thousands were constructed in the 1960s — after a "political shift" to curb Mao's personality cult.

A specific tale: Per CNN, a 120-foot-tall golden Mao was constructed in China's Henan province last year, only to be demolished after local officials determined that the statue was inappropriate due to the damage caused in the region by the Great Leap Forward.


While Italy has few statues to mark its fascist past under Benito Mussolini, it does have a whole town still dedicated in his memory — Latina, founded by Mussolini in 1932. Newsweek took a tour of the town back in 2015 when the head of its tourist office branded it a "living fascist monument," highlighting the benefits of Mussolini's leadership. It's at the forefront of a fascism tourist trend in Italy, which includes multiple yearly pilgrimages to Mussolini's tomb.

Another perspective: The Boston Globe has an interesting look at how Rome, which lacks any sort of monument or statue to Mussolini, still bears unmissable vestiges of his reign in its urban planning — like the four lane-wide Via Dei Fori Imperiale through the heart of ancient Rome designed to pack crowds for his speeches.


Spaniards still attempt to grapple with the legacy of Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator whose ascension sent the country into the throes of civil war in the late 1930s. In 2004, Spain's Parliament passed a law that required all remaining monuments to Franco be removed — even though the vast majority had been quietly dismantled in the decades prior. That decision tore open old wounds in the country, as one historian told the NYT in 2008:

"National reconciliation really took place during the 1960s and '70s, when Franco was still in power, through a natural process, not by government edict, but because of a collective feeling that the war had been horrible and that Spain had to move on."
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