TEARING DOWN STATUES or defacing them is nothing new, as some might believe after hearing about dunking Edward Colston’s toppled statue into a river in Bristol.
When I visited Albania in 1984, I saw statues of Josef Stalin and the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha prominently placed in public spaces. Neither of these two gentlemen can be seriously considered to be God’s best gifts to humanity. Many of their actions caused great fear and suffering in both the former USSR and in Albania.
In 1991, Albania’s long (1944-1991) Communist regime crumbled ignominiously. In February 1991, citizens of Albania’s capital, Tirana, attached cables to a huge statue of Enver Hoxha, an admirer of Stalin, and pulled it down. Many of the police guarding the huge monument to repression assisted the people to cause this bronze statue to topple to the ground.
Years later, in 2016, we visited Albania. In the centre of Tirana, there is a national museum of art, which was present when I visited the city in 1984. Back then, and even in 2016, there was a good collection of fine works created in the Social Realism style, so popular amongst Communist regimes. After seeing the gallery in 2016, we happened to bump into one of the museum’s curators. I showed him a picture of a sculpture I had taken in 1984 and asked him if he recognised it. Without answering, he invited us to follow him to a yard at the rear of the gallery.
There, in the yard, stood the sculpture I had photographed in 1984. More interestingly, it was not alone. It stood next to a giant statue of Lenin and another one of Stalin and another large object wrapped in cloth tied down with ropes. The curator explained that these statues, although they depicted people whose ideas and actions had done much harm to the Albanian people, were valuable works of art, not simply because of their great scrap metal value but, more importantly, they helped record the country’s history. In addition, he explained that they were fine examples of their genre. The bundled-up object standing in that yard was, he explained, too sensitive to uncover as it would upset many people viewing it. It was part of an enormous statue of Enver Hoxha, who had not yet been forgiven by many Albanians. Clearly, Lenin and Stalin were thought to be less disturbing as they were not covered up, but sufficiently upsetting to be confined to a relatively unvisited yard behind the gallery open to the public.
Both Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in London contain statues that might cause offense to those whose knowledge of history is more than superficial, yet their actions have not always been 100% reprehensible. Fortunately for these monuments, many of the kind of people who might be inclined to topple statues do not usually read much detailed history.
There are some statues or monuments, which remember people, whose actions cannot rationally be called into question. One of these is that of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), whose work formed the foundation of something on which we are currently becoming extremely dependent: vaccination. Only someone out of his or her mind would consider pulling down or defacing his statue.
Recently, when strolling along an embankment, I spotted a monument close to the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace. Erected in 2009, it commemorates the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), whose covert activities in no little way helped to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany’s forces during WW2. The plinth with metal commemorative plaques is topped with the head of a woman with high cheekbones, a serious, determined face, and luxuriant curly hair, tied back. She stares out across the River Thames toward the Houses of Parliament. The bust depicts Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (1921-1945), whose actions behind enemy lines in France were designed to sabotage German military activity. She was one of many women including Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), of Indian aristocratic heritage, who risked and lost their lives to assist in the defeat of a repressive regime.
SOE was staffed by both men and women of many nationalities, and their bravery is recorded on this simple memorial outside Lambeth Palace. Although simple in design, the expression depicted in the face of Violette Szabo gave me a feeling of the great determination of those brave souls who gave up their lives in horrific circumstances. They did so in the hope, fulfilled, that we could enjoy life in Britain and elsewhere without having to bear the burden of inhumane dictatorial rule.
Unlike Stalin and Hoxha, statues of the purely benevolent such as Jenner and Szabo should be allowed to stand undisturbed for ever, well, at least, so long as they can survive London’s ever-changing weather conditions and pollution.