TOPIC GUIDE: Historical monuments (Germany edition)

"Monuments to controversial historical figures should remain"

PUBLISHED: 15 Jan 2018

AUTHOR: John Milnes-Smith

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On 17 October 2016, Austria’s interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, announced that the controversial, 200-year-old building in which Adolf Hitler was born would be demolished. Such a decision followed years of debate over the status of the home, with most viewing it as a reminder of a dark chapter of history [Ref: BBC]. Others, however, such as the occasional crowds of neo-Nazis who have visited the site, have made the building a tourist attraction and location for glorification in a trend that has pushed many of the local townspeople of Braunau and minister Sobotka himself to support the destruction of the building. [Ref: Deutsche Welle] In many other nations, the debate surrounding the legitimacy of certain historical memorials has gathered pace, with the American city of New Orleans recently voting to remove statues of prominent Confederate figures of the American Civil War, such as Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis, in an attempt to confront the South’s racist past [Ref: CNN]. At Oxford University, a campaign began for the removal of a statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, with supporters observing that any steps to address the lack of black and minority students and lecturers at the institution were undermined by the monument [Ref: Guardian]. For supporters, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign ‘operates on the premise that these present discrepancies are rooted in history, and the present and the past must, together, be critically engaged with’ [Ref: Guardian] However, a number of critics have begun to express concern at campaigns to ‘whitewash’ history, with columnist Matthew D’Ancona arguing that: “There is a modernist urge to wipe away the past and replace it with the new, but we should resist it.” ( Ref: New York Times ) At its heart, the debate is about our relationship with history, and whether removing statues and monuments has a role to play in reappraising historic wrongs, or whether they encourage us to airbrush out difficult and contentious parts of our history, rather than engage with and understand them. Should monuments or heritage sites of controversial historical figures remain?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Do historical monuments matter?

‘Public statues are intensely political’ notes writer Martin Gayford. He outlines the nature of public memorials and statues, and observes that over time, our appraisal of individuals changes, for instance as with the thousands of statues of Lenin and Marx brought down after the fall of the former Soviet Union [Ref: Spectator]. From this perspective, historical monuments do matter as they can be seen as symbols of norms and values we agree to commemorate, as historian Professor Christopher Phelps argues [Ref: Chronicle Review]. He says: ‘History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone, or erects a statue to that person, it bestows honour and legitimacy.’ [Ref: Chronicle Review] However, the moral value of historical monuments is fiercely contested. For critics, in removing these statues we are in danger of symbolically removing distasteful aspects of history which allow us to understand the present. As one South African student notes in reference to Rhodes: ‘Removing him omits an essential part of the institution’s history that has contributed to everything good, bad and ugly about it’ [Ref: Guardian].

Some have argued that removing unplanned sites such as the home of Hitler’s birth, as opposed to monuments, may have the opposite effect that those wishing to destroy it would intend. Despina Stratigakos cites the example of the Nazi Berghof which was blown up by authorities and left in ruins only to eventually become a renewed shrine for neo-Nazis. Stratigakos further contends that removal of a simple building dating back to the seventeenth century opens the possibility for a void into which any type of new meaning may be projected [Ref: Quartz]. In the case of the Rhodes statue at the University of Oxford, some attempt to place the monument in its historical context, and note that Oriel College was founded in 1324, and as such, its statues serve as a repository of history, good and bad. More importantly, they argue: ‘A salient fact about the Oriel statue of Rhodes is its date: 1911. It is an echo in stone of a different time.” [Ref: New York Times]

Why do people want to remove them?
Advocates of removing statues of controversial figures or questionable heritage sites, suggest that these memorials represent individuals whose actions and legacies should not be celebrated or immortalised. Moreover, our understanding and interpretation of historical norms and values changes over time, which means we should be constantly re-appraising historical monuments. Christopher Phelps argues: ‘To reconsider, to recast, is the essence of historical practice. It follows that altering how we present the past through commemorative symbol is not ahistorical…on the contrary, it represents a more thorough coming to terms with the past and legacies, a refusal to forget.’ [Ref: Chronicle Review] Viewing historical figures through critical eyes is vital for supporters who do not see statues and memorials as benign and meaningless symbols. Instead, they argue that in the case of the Confederate statues in New Orleans, for example: ‘The statues serve less as a testament to the men they depicted than to the cause they represented, as propaganda to a particular point of view that dominated a particular time.” [Ref: The Advocate] Historian David Olusoga claims that the movement to bring down memorials of certain historical figures has a broader aim, beyond statues or sites themselves, and that it is about former powers such as Britain and Germany accepting past atrocities, and realising that there are aspects of history that ‘should not be uncritically celebrated’, asking if ‘we really want to be a society that uncritically memorialises a nineteenth-century racist.’ [Ref: Guardian] Ultimately, supporters argue that we should morally judge figures such as Rhodes - and in that judgement, decide whether or not we should still have public memorials regarding them [Ref: London Review of Books], because ‘parts of the past are not dead and symbols matter’. [Ref: Guardian]

Re-writing history?
Historian and broadcaster Professor Mary Beard contends that instead of tearing down memorials to controversial figures, it is ‘more important is to look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it… not to simply photoshop the nasty bits out.’ [Ref: Times Literary Supplement] In a similar vein, some are cautious about the idea of subjecting historical figures to modern standards of moral judgement [Ref: Guardian], and question what good an example such as removing a statue of Cecil Rhodes will do in a practical sense, as: ‘Rhodes cannot be expunged from the history of Oxford, Britain and South Africa.’ [Ref: Guardian] Opponents of campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall are critical of attempts to infantilise students and the public by claiming that statues of historical figures in some way have an impact on social issues today. One commentator argues that: ‘Campaigners are deluding themselves if they think that removing a flag or statue will make any difference to inequalities of race, class or gender’ [Ref: The Conversation], and suggests that rather than insisting that statues should come down, they need to engage in the politics needed to bring about real change. Furthermore, for these critics the act of understanding history relies on recognising how the past informs the present, and not editing out parts we don’t like, which in turn means that the individuals and events of the past, which are at times memorialised through monuments, street names or statues, are legitimate parts of the narrative and fabric of history. Allowing these sites to stand isn’t to legitimise the views of slave holders, imperialists, and other controversial figures, but rather, it is part of the ‘challenge of history’ to debate the moral questions the monuments may present, and confront them head-on [Ref: New York Times ]. Additionally, the problem with attempting to eradicate problematic aspects of history, critics argue, is that campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall are emblematic of a wider contemporary fixation with pathologising the past [Ref: spiked ]. Writer Brendan O’Neill maintains that: ‘What is most notable about Rhodes Must Fall is its treatment of history as a source of psychological trauma.’ [Ref: spiked] In light of the arguments on both sides, should monuments and heritage sites of controversial historical figures be removed, or does this do a disservice to history, and make us victims of history rather than subjects who can understand and engage with it?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Must Rhodes fall?

Matthew D'Ancona New York Times 28 January 2016


Why Hitler’s house should be destroyed

Jamie Aspden Redbrick 16 November 2016

Removing racist symbols isn’t a denial of history

Christopher Phelps Chronicle of Higher Education 8 January 2016


The real meaning of Rhodes must fall

Amit Chaudhuri Guardian 16 March 2016

Hitler’s old house gives Austria a headache

Bethany Bell BBC News 29 December 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The terrible problem of Hitler’s earliest home

Jessie Guy-Ryan Atlas Obscura 10 April 2016

Cecil Rhodes colonial legacy must fall – not his statue

Siya Mnyanda Guardian 25 March 2016

Not all racist monuments should be torn down

Zachary Fine New Republic 10 March 2016

Will Rhodes must fall fail?

BBC News 18 January 2016

Defending Robert E. Lee

Barry D. Wood Huffington Post 11 January 2016

The statue of Cecil Rhodes like that of Saddam, must fall

Chi Chi Shi The Times 26 December 2015

Message to students: Rhodes was no racist

Nigel Biggar The Times 22 December 2015

Confederate monuments will come down in New Orleans

Kevin M. Levin Atlantic 17 December 2015

Why we shouldn’t pull down all those Confederate memorials

Alfred L. Brophy Newsweek 10 July 2015


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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