Category Archives: war
Ask any of the few remaining World War II veterans what they did during the war and you’re likely to get a humble answer. But ask the person on the street how important their country’s contribution to the war effort was and you’ll probably hear something far less modest. A new study suggests people from Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on average all think their own country shouldered more than half the burden of fighting World War II.
Our national collective memories seem to be deceiving us, and this is part of a far more general pattern. Aside from those veterans who have no desire to revel in the horrors of war, we may have a general psychological tendency to believe our contributions are more significant than they really are.
You can see this in even the most mundane of tasks. Unloading the dishwasher can be a perennial source of family irritation. I suspect that I’m doing more than my fair share. The trouble is that so does everybody else. Each of us can think: “The sheer injustice! I’m overworked and under-appreciated.”
But we can’t all be right. This strange magnification of our own efforts seems to be ubiquitous. In business, sport or entertainment, it’s all too easy for each participant to think that their own special stardust is the real reason their company, team or show was a hit.
It works for nations, too. A study last year, led by US memory researcher Henry Roediger III, asked people from 35 countries for the percentage contribution their own nation has made to world history. A dispassionate judge would, of course, assign percentages that add up to no more than 100% (and, indeed, considerably less, given the 160 or so countries left out). In fact, the self-rating percentages add up to over 1,000%, with citizens of India, Russia and the UK each suspecting on average that their own nations had more than half the responsibility for world progress.
A sceptic might note that “contributing to world history” is a rather nebulous idea, which each nation can interpret to its advantage. (The Italians, at 40%, might focus on the Romans and the Renaissance, for example.) But what about our responsibility for specific world events? The latest study from Roediger’s lab addresses the question of national contributions to World War II.
The researchers surveyed people from eight former Allied countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, Russia/USSR, the UK and the US) and three former Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). As might be expected, people from the winning Allied side ranked their own countries highly, and the average percentage responses added up to 309%. Citizens of the UK, US and Russia all believed their countries had contributed more than 50% of the war effort and were more than 50% responsible for victory.
You might suspect that the losing Axis powers, whose historical record is inextricably tied to the immeasurable human suffering of the war, might not be so proud. As former US president John F Kennedy said (echoing the Roman historian Tacitus): “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Perhaps the results for the Allied countries just reflect a general human tendency to claim credit for positive achievements. Yet citizens of the three Axis powers also over-claim shares of the war effort (totalling 140%). Rather than minimising their own contribution, even defeated nations seem to overstate their role.
Why? The simplest explanation is that we piece together answers to questions, of whatever kind, by weaving together whatever relevant snippets of information we can bring to mind. And the snippets of information that come to mind will depend on the information we’ve been exposed to through our education and cultural environment. Citizens of each nation learn a lot more about their country’s own war effort than those of other countries. These “home nation” memories spring to mind, and a biased evaluation is the inevitable result.
So there may not be inherent “psychological nationalism” in play here. And nothing special about collective, rather than individual, memory either. We simply improvise answers, perhaps as honestly as possible, based on what our memory provides – and our memory, inevitably, magnifies our own (or our nation’s) efforts.
How do you calculate real responsibility?
A note of caution is in order. Assigning responsibilities for past events baffles not just everyday citizens, but academic philosophers. Imagine a whodunit in which two hopeful murderers put lethal doses of cyanide into Lady Fotherington’s coffee. Each might say: “It’s not my fault – she would have died anyway.” Is each only “half” to blame, and hence due a reduced sentence? Or are they both 100% culpable? This poisoning is a simple matter compared with the tangled causes of military victory and defeat. So it is not entirely clear what even counts as over- or under-estimating our responsibilities because responsibilities are so difficult to assess.
Still, the tendency to overplay our own and our nation’s role in just about anything seems all too plausible. We see history through a magnifying glass that is pointing directly at ourselves. We learn the most about the story of our own nation. So our home nation’s efforts and contributions inevitably spring readily to mind (military and civilian deaths, key battles, advances in technology and so on). The efforts and contributions of other nations are sensed more dimly, and often not at all.
And the magnifying glass over our efforts is pervasive in daily life. I can find myself thinking irritably, as I unload the dishwasher, “Well, I don’t even remember the last time you did this!” But of course not. Not because you didn’t do it, but because I wasn’t there.
If the aim of statue removal is to build a more racially just South, then, as many analysts have pointed out, putting these monuments in storage is a lost opportunity. Simply unseating Confederate statues from highly visible public spaces is just the first step in a much longer process of understanding, grieving and mending the wounds of America’s violent past. Merely hiding away the monuments does not necessarily change the structural racism that birthed them.
Studies show that the environment in which statues are displayed shapes how people understand their meaning. In that sense, relocating monuments, rather than eliminating them, can help people put this painful history into context.
For example, monuments to Confederate war heroes first appeared in cemeteries immediately following the Civil War. That likely evoked in visitors a direct and private honoring and grieving for the dead.
By the early 1900s, hundreds of Confederate statues dotted courthouse lawns and town squares across the South. This prominent, centrally located setting on government property sent an intentionally different message: that local officials endorsed the prevailing white social order.
So what should we do with rejected Confederate monuments? We have a modest proposal: a Confederate statue graveyard.
Lessons from the Soviet past
Our research as cultural geographers recognizes that Confederate monument controversies – while typically considered regional or national issues – are in fact part of global struggles to recognize and heal from the wounds of racism, white supremacy and anti-democratic regimes.
The idea of a Confederate monument graveyard is modeled after ways that the former communist bloc nations of Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have dealt with statues of Soviet heroes like Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
Under communist Soviet rule between 1945 and 1991, Eastern European countries suffered mass starvation, land theft, military rule and rigid censorship. An estimated 15 million people in the Soviet bloc died during this totalitarian reign.
Despite these horrors, many countries have opted not to destroy or hide their Soviet-era monuments, but they haven’t left them to rule over city hall or public plazas, either.
Rather, governments in Eastern Europe have altered the meaning of these politically charged Soviet statues by relocating them. Dozens of Soviet statues across Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have been pulled from their pedestals and placed in open-air parks, where interested visitors can reflect on their new significance.
The idea behind relocating monuments is to dethrone dominant historical narratives that, in their traditional places of power, are tacitly endorsed.
A statue graveyard
The Eastern European effort to create a new memorial landscape has been met with mixed public reaction.
In Hungary, some see it as a step in the right direction. But, in Lithuania, people have expressed that re-erecting the statues of known dictators is in “poor taste” – an affront to those who suffered under totalitarianism.
The relocation of Soviet statues in Estonia has taken an even more interesting turn.
For the past decade, the Estonian History Museum has been collecting former Soviet monuments with the intention of making an outdoor exhibition out of them. For years it kept a decapitated Lenin and a noseless Stalin, among other degraded Soviet relics, in a field next to the museum.
The statues weathered Eastern European winters and languished in a defunct, toppled state. Weeds grew over them. The elements took their toll.
Travel writer Michael Turtle, who visited the museum in 2015, called the field a “statue graveyard.”
“Everything here seems to fit into some kind of purgatorial limbo,” he wrote on his blog. “The statues are not respected enough to be displayed as history but are culturally significant enough to not just be destroyed.”
To this we would add that these old statues, when repurposed thoughtfully and intentionally, have the potential to mend old wounds.
Confederate monument graveyard
What if the United States created its own graveyard for the distasteful relics of its own racist past?
We envision a cemetery for the American South where removed Confederate statues would be displayed, perhaps, in a felled position – a visual condemnation of the white supremacy they fought to uphold. Already crumpled monuments, like the statue to “The Boys Who Wore Grey” that was forcefully removed from downtown Durham, North Carolina, might be placed in the Confederate statue graveyard in their defunct state.
One art critic has even suggested that old monuments be physically buried under tombstones with epitaphs written by the descendants of those they enslaved.
We are not the first to suggest relocating Confederate statues.
That has proven challenging for curators.
When The University of Texas moved a statue of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its pedestal on campus to a campus museum, some students criticized the ensuing exhibit’s “lack of focus on racism and slavery.” One suggested that the statue’s new setting inadvertently glorified Davis, given the inherent value conferred on objects in museums.
And since statues in museums are typically exhibited in their original, upright position, Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee still tower over visitors – maintaining an imposing sense of authority.
We believe felled and crumpled monuments, in contrast, would create a somber commemorative atmosphere that encourages visitors to grieve – without revering – their legacy. A carefully-planned and aesthetically sensitive Confederate monument graveyard could openly and purposefully undermine the power these monuments once held, acknowledging, dissecting and ultimately rejecting the Confederacy’s roots in slavery.
Planning a Confederate monument graveyard will prompt many questions. Where should it be located? Will there be one central Confederate monument graveyard or many? Who will design and plan the graveyard?
Answering these questions would not just be part of a conversation about steel and stone but about the serious pursuit of peace, justice and racial healing in the nation — and about putting the Old South to rest.