In June, my wife and I accompanied a group of teachers and students from Ballard High School on a 10-day, whirlwind tour of central Europe.
Our first stop was Berlin, the sprawling capital of Germany. On the morning of the second day in town, we boarded a bus for a driving tour, and were soon joined by a guide named Kevin.
Kevin, he humorously admitted, was a strange name for a German native like himself. He was, he said smirking, “a souvenir” left behind by his father, an American soldier stationed in Berlin during the 1960s. Kevin was an aspiring college professor, but, unable to land a full-time position, was moonlighting as a tour guide. A good one, too.
Berlin, like Germany as a whole, is a place of many histories. It rose to international prominence as the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia in the early 1700s and later became the seat of the German Empire under Bismarck by the late 1800s. After World War I, the economically crippled Weimar Republic was based there. And after World War II, Berlin was divided into four sections by the victorious Allies but eventually became the epicenter of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Kevin talked about some of that history, but the main focus of his attention was on a much darker period of German’s past: the Nazi Third Reich, led by Adolf Hitler. As we drove through various sections of the city, Kevin made sure to point out spots important to understanding what happened during Hitler’s reign in the 1930s and 1940s.
There was the Reichsluftfahrtministerium, where the Nazi air force coordinated its blitz attacks on London. Under that park was Hitler’s bunker, where he committed suicide as the Soviet army took control of the city. In that spot, where the Topography of Terror Museum now sits, were the headquarters of the Gestapo as well as the Waffen Schutzstaffel, the notorious SS. Kevin gave a brief, but brunt, summary of each.
We also stopped at a sobering spot just southeast of the Reichstag (the seat of the German parliament), called the Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial spans an entire, undulating city block, and consists of over 2,700 concrete slabs of varying sizes aligned in a grid. It is, right there in the heart of the German capital, a persistent and humbling reminder of the atrocities that country once committed in a fit of political insanity.
Missing from our tour, and from Berlin in general, are any memorials to Hitler or any of his subordinates in the Nazi regime. No dignified bronze casts of Herman Goering or Josef Goebbels, no marble statues of Heinrich Himmler or Wilhelm Keitel on horseback. No murals of brave Wehrmacht soldiers marching off to invade France or Russia.
And yet, without any of these relics, the history of the Third Reich is alive and well in Berlin and across the rest of Germany. The country has not forgotten its past. In fact, it still works daily to reconcile with it. To atone. To make sure that through a very clear memory of what happened in the past, it will never make the same horrible mistakes again.
We Americans would do well to follow Germany’s lead. All across our country remain memorials honoring and celebrating the officers and soldiers of the Confederacy, the Southern secessionists who fought to maintain a system of racial slavery the tragic scope of which has few rivals in human history. These are not sober markers simply noting historical happenstance. They are celebrative shrines to traitors and white supremacists.
Removing them, either to museums or to landfills, would no more erase the history of the Civil War or of the slave trade any more than the detonation of the swastika over the Zeppelinfeld in Nuremburg erased the history of the Third Reich. We can, and will, easily remember what happened in our past without these monuments, most of which were erected during the early 20th century, at the height of Jim Crow.
Louisville has already made one positive stride in this effort – the recent removal of the statue honoring Confederate soldiers that once stood at the confluence of Second and Third Streets on the campus of the University of Louisville. That shrine, built by white supremacists and still defended by them to the very end, now sits in Brandenburg, Kentucky, where hopefully someday the residents of that town will demolish it for good.
Remaining in Louisville, however, is a prominent statue of John Breckenridge Castleman in the heart of the Highlands neighborhood. Castleman, as the statue’s plaque and a nearby sign admit, was a proud Confederate officer who served under notorious raider John Hunt Morgan. Though eventually captured and sentenced to death for spying, Castleman was ultimately pardoned along with many other prominent members of the C.S.A.
A Southern Democrat and supporter of Jim Crow segregation, Castleman went on to serve in the postwar U.S. military and later led the Louisville Board of Parks for 25 years. The statue of him, which still dominates the Cherokee Triangle, was commissioned by Castleman himself and erected in 1913, five years before he died.
The statue has stood there long enough. Perhaps Castleman’s contributions to the city of Louisville should be noted in places where they were directly relevant, on markers and signs. But, like the monument now gone from UofL’s campus, the statue of him shamelessly celebrates the Confederacy (and his role in it). It portrays him as an unrepentant hero, not a humble public servant striving to atone for his youthful treason.
If there must be a statue in the center of the roundabout on Cherokee Parkway, I propose this simple compromise. Remove Castleman from the back of the horse upon which he sits, named Caroline, and leave her alone atop the podium. Caroline never hurt anyone, and never betrayed her country in the name of slavery.
The horse can stay, but the rider must go.
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Adolf Hitler.
Joe Dunman is a college professor and a civil rights attorney in Kentucky. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at www.joedunmanlaw.com. All opinions expressed are his own.