Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 28, 2020

The red elephant in the park

Public figures seen as heroes frequently have buildings, parks or streets named for them. The erection of a likeness, such as a statue, is also common. A memorial to honor an event such as those who died in a war is another example.

But what was viewed as a good idea at the time may later seem less so if unflattering facts surface. In other cases, shifting cultural norms may change how accomplishments or events are viewed.

A good example comes from husband Art's hometown. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was from Appleton and his first major public office was as a county judge. Many locals viewed him as the hometown boy who went on to the national scene and made good as a tireless anti-communist. This prompted the 1960 placement of a McCarthy bust in the courthouse. But over time, more saw him as someone who dealt loosely with the truth and cared little about the lives ruined by his unsupported accusations. This culminated in the bust's removal to a local museum in 2001. Since McCarthy died in 1957, the only thing that changed was how the public balanced those two aspects of the man.

Gen. George Patton is a hero to many in France, Belgium and Luxembourg because his leadership of the Third Army in World War II led to their liberation from Nazi occupation. But his earlier striking of an American soldier he thought a coward had cast doubt on whether Patton should be placed in command. Today, we recognize the soldier was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Patton saw the soldier's condition as a character flaw. The general's anti-Semitic views, while not widely known, were also no secret. But his battlefield skills meant European Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower protected Patton so he would be available for commanding the Third Army.

Today, a large statue of Patton gazes into the distance outside of Ettelbruck, Luxembourg, a sign of the high regard its citizens have for him. Yet to others, his worthiness is less clear.

Perhaps no place has had to deal with such conflicting feelings as much as Germany. It has had to balance having produced many of the world's greatest mathematicians, scientists, musicians, artists, writers and thinkers, with its responsibility for the Holocaust. This schism can be seen on a plaque near Seelow in northeast Germany. It was the location of the battle that opened the door for Russian troops to enter Berlin and, as the plaque says, "... rid us of Fascism." A reader might conclude these Fascists were outside invaders and not themselves Germans.

Americans are struggling today with what to do about statues of Southern generals who fought for a government that embraced slavery. Princeton University's president Woodrow Wilson had buildings and fellowships named for him after he became our U.S. leader during World War I. But his racism only became widely known later. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie is remembered for the money he donated to build libraries across the U.S., but much of his wealth arose from treating his employees in a manner many consider cruel.

One way to deal with these situations is to erase all mention of such individuals. Take down the statues and rename anything bearing their names. Raze monuments to events we now see differently.

But there are examples of what may be a better way. Germany became a world power late compared to Great Britain, France, Spain and others. Uniting as a country in 1871, it followed the lead of established world powers by seeking colonies. But coming to the game late, much of the globe's surface had been claimed. One land that fell under German rule was German South West Africa, now called Namibia. As many as 110,000 natives were killed between 1904 and 1908 to make the land "safe" for German settlers.

That all came to an end after World War I when Germany was stripped of its colonies.

While the 1920s was a prosperous period for most of the world, conditions in Germany went from bad to worse. As often happens in such times, a desire arose to raise morale by erecting monuments to earlier accomplishments. One of those was a giant red elephant made of brick set in the central park in Bremen, commemorating Germany's dominion over its former African colony and the wealth it brought to this port city. But when the Third Reich came to power in the 1930s, things improved for most Germans and interest in the elephant waned.

Many contemporary Germans see the elephant as a symbol of a past they are not proud of and want the elephant taken down. But others see it as a historical symbol and a memoir of their grandparents' and great-grandparents' attitudes. It was decided to let the elephant quietly stand in the park as it had for decades, while plaques were added which explain not just the feelings that prompted its building, but what Germans had done to the natives. It was rededicated and named the Antikolonialdenkmal - the anti-colonial monument.

As a journalist, I was taught - and as a professor, I also taught - that what we write is the first draft of history. The implication is we recognize there may be more to come and what we discover may change our view of some event or person. That earlier draft may well be incomplete, but it does contain an element of truth in terms of reflecting how things appeared at the time.

In a way, the Germans took a first draft and fleshed out the elephant story so the result was a more accurate depiction of what happened.

The explanations that accompany McCarthy's bust in the museum in Appleton have won praise from both his supporters and detractors. Perhaps this approach, like that in Bremen, is a better way of dealing with these conflicts than erasure. It provides an opportunity to tell a more complete story.

Left: Patton statue in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg. Inset is accompanying plaque. Top-center: Seelow monument. Bottom-center: Bremen's elephant. Top-right: McCarthy bust when it was in the courthouse. Bottom-right: Historical society display on the Senator titled, "Joseph McCarthy; A Modern Tragedy." Photo credits in same order: Freeland, www.brandenburg-explorer.de, Wikipedia, and two from www.newspaper.com of Appleton Post-Crescent.

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from 2020 may be found at: 2020 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home