Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Pedestal Pushers

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History


Headline 272pp £20

For her new book, Alex von Tunzelmann has chosen a subject that has recently become something of a minefield: statues. With her erudition and lightness of touch, Tunzelmann is as skilled a guide to the topic as one could wish for. There is not a dull sentence in the book, which begins with the moment American revolutionaries toppled the statue of George III in New York. Put up in 1770, the gilded lead statue was torn down six years later, with the ‘melted Majesty’ turned into musket balls to fire at British soldiers. There are also some good jokes, many involving the murderous dictator of the Dominican Republic Rafael Trujillo, who erected huge white monuments to his own penis, one around forty metres high.

In some senses one wishes the book covered more ground, though there could probably be less about Trujillo, whom the CIA helped to kill in 1961. The author might have found room for the Second Commandment and for the fate of statues of unloved emperors in ancient Rome, many of which were defaced or repurposed, with a number of portrait busts being reworked to celebrate a new ruler. When discussing statues, Pliny sounds as passionate as a Black Lives Matter activist might do today:

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with the axe as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy – so long deferred – were unrestrained; all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames.

Iconoclasm in general also deserves more consideration, notably Europe’s own early modern version of the Taliban, which during the Reformation cleared churches of ‘idols’, not to speak of the Jacobin statue topplers of the French Revolution.

Conservatives who don’t like statues of slave owners and traders being felled might learn a bit more history before they pontificate about it, let alone seek to legislate to protect the official mythological version. But then many of the most prominent of them, as Tunzelmann is too nice to say, are connected to think-tanks that simply regard this as a politically useful ‘wedge issue’ in a wider culture war.

As Tunzelmann points out, in the case of roughly half of the fallen statues she discusses in detail, conservatives were among the most enthusiastic supporters of tearing them down or removing them to dedicated ‘statue parks’, where moss and weeds could take over and children and tourists might use them as props in selfies. Did they mind when Allied troops blew up Nazi monuments, or when a grotesque statue of Stalin was cut down in Budapest in 1956, or when US troops staged a PR stunt and used hawsers and a truck to bring down one of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003? Wouldn’t they applaud if at least some of the forty thousand statues celebrating the Kim dynasty in North Korea were smashed or recycled? To claim that only PC or ‘woke’ lefties like pulling down statues is to be ignorant of a great deal of history, which professional historians constantly revise anyway.

The same people only seem to get really worked up over statues from the eras of empire and slavery, which is one of the implicit lessons of Tunzelmann’s book. Possibly her finest chapter concerns the monuments celebrating the ‘Lost Cause’ that sprang up all over the defeated states of the US South, often forty or fifty years after the end of the Civil War. This was akin to putting up statues of Guy Burgess or Kim Philby at the end of the Cold War.

They were the handiwork of dedicated Confederate societies, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which transfigured those (traitors) who supported slavery into noble fighters for states’ rights, though some of the earliest monuments made no bones about their support for ‘white supremacy’. If I were an African-American in New Orleans, I would not care to see the huge equestrian statue of General P G T Beauregard every day, a man who regretted, after the Civil War, that black people had not gone the way of buffaloes and Native Americans. He was removed from his plinth in 2017. So was the obelisk commemorating the ‘Battle of Liberty Place’, which was erected in 1891 to celebrate a failed segregationist coup in 1874. An explanatory inscription placed on it in 1932 read: ‘McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.’

Tunzelmann is far too good a historian simply to parrot the passions of young people who get very ‘woked up’ about some statues, though she reminds us of the context in which the Bristolian slave trader Edward Colston ended up briefly in the drink (where nineteen thousand of his dead ‘cargo’ ended up too in the late 17th and early 18th centuries). Colston has recently been displayed in the M Shed museum in Bristol, splattered with paint and on his side. A ‘guerrilla’ plaque marks the spot where he was thrown in the water in June 2020.

Debate about what to do with some statues is often polarised. In the case of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, the sculptor Antony Gormley has recently suggested a compromise by turning the figure of Rhodes around to face the wall, but that does not seem a very serious proposal. Tunzelmann is sceptical about the value of revisionist plaques, if only because many passers-by don’t even notice these statues. Although I am a born Londoner, until I read this book I wasn’t aware that there was a statue of James II – as it happens, the main shareholder in the Royal African Company, the biggest slave transporter – in Trafalgar Square. The Flemish sculptor’s disguising the king as a Roman emperor was too good in my case. Most public statues, notably those of men in suits or uniforms, are frankly not any good, despite the windswept cloaks and overcoats added to provide a dramatic flourish. Bernini’s Richelieu they are not.

Tunzelmann does not think smashing up historical artefacts of any kind is a good idea, but favours removing them to museums, if they have the resources to supply explanations, or the kinds of ‘statue parks’ one can find in eastern Europe and Russia. Properly explaining to children the differences between history and myth would be even better, perhaps with the aid of virtual-reality technology, which could be employed somewhere like contemporary Budapest to show how these most apparently immobile of objects move about quite a lot, depending on who is in charge. Every statue is a separate case, as this enjoyable and thought-provoking book shows.

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