In Vienna, my adopted city, there is a Soviet War Memorial. It occupies 3,000 square feet in central Vienna. It features a white marble colonnade and a 650-foot column capped by a 40-foot figure of a Red Army soldier.
He is wearing a golden helmet and bears a Soviet flag and a golden Soviet coat of arms. A plaque at the base of the column reads: “Monument to honor the soldiers of the Soviet Army who fell while freeing Austria from Fascism.”
In Helena, 225 miles from Billings, the city of my birth, and 5,000 miles west of Vienna’s Soviet War Memorial, there is a Confederate Memorial Fountain. Writing in Salon two years, Eric Stern described it as “a stone fountain that sits in a flower bed in a municipal park in Helena. … Until a few weeks ago, few Helenans had ever paid much attention to it, if they even knew it existed at all.” Erected in 1916 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the fountain bears the simple engraving: “In Loving Memory of our Confederate Soldiers.”
Seventeen thousand Soviet soldiers died while expelling the Third Reich from Vienna. No Montanans died as soldiers of the Confederacy, of course. (It wasn’t until a quarter-century after Appomattox that Montana became a state.)
But as many as a fourth of Montana’s original white settlers had emigrated from the South. Among them were Confederate veterans or their widows and children. So at its dedication, the Confederate Memorial Fountain was described by the United Daughters as “a token of our esteem toward our new home.”
American friends who visit Vienna raise an eyebrow as they approach the Soviet War Memorial. For seven years Austria was disastrously “united” with the Nazi Reich and, for a decade after, great swaths of the city and the Republic beyond it were occupied by the Soviet Union. How can it be, they wonder, that such dark and tangled chapters of Austrian history are so conspicuously memorialized?
Americans, as we’ve been reminded in recent days, take their history straight. Less nuance, more in-your-face. With respect to statuary the American way goes something like this:
First dedicate a statue in a public park. Its purpose may be something as innocent as the United Daughters’ wish to give Montana “a token of our esteem toward our new home.” Or it may have some darker objective. Often, it’s a mix.
Then ignore the many meanings, nuanced and contradictory, of the statue. Ignore the mix. Ignore, in short, the tangled skein of its historical context.
Then condemn the statue because it doesn’t concur with our Cliff Notes understanding of the past. Opt, instead, for our own simplistic interpretation.
Then relinquish “ownership” of the statue to dangerous fringe groups who will “protect” it for their own crude reasons and with their own special methods.
Finally, “sanitize” the park by removing the statue. Preferably before it pushes all of our fear, hatred, passion, pride and righteous indignation over an edge and into the sort of civil disorder that Charlottesville, Va., suffered earlier this month.
And so the city fathers in Helena have decided to dismantle the Confederate Memorial Fountain before dire straits are reached. Meanwhile, the city fathers in Vienna quietly maintain the Soviet War Memorial while the Viennese either revere or tolerate — or, more often, simply ignore — its presence.
Think of it as the difference between heat and light. In America, we’ve been captured by the heat of our untutored passions, and we’re being led down some very un-American roads. The Viennese seem to have opted for the light. A little more nuance, a little less in-your-face.
It’s as though they have been listening to our National Trust for Historic Preservation: “We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it.” It was George Santayana — a European, I recall — who warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Vienna and in Red Lodge.