According to Grever the phenomenon is not new. “People have been demonstrating their opposition to statues of controversial figures since as far back as the 18th century,” explained Grever. The monument of J. B. van Heutsz, a Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, famous for his ruthless military campaigns during the Aceh War, is an example of this. “When his statue was unveiled by Queen Wilhelmina in 1935, there were already people fiercely protesting against it,” she continued.

Place it in context

According to Grever, we need to place the erection of statues in the correct historical context. “Take the statues of military leaders from the American Civil War in the city of Richmond in the United States, for instance. These statues have been erected there since 1890 specifically to demonstrate white superiority. The southern States may have lost the war and slavery was formally abolished, but these statues still emphasised the superiority of white Americans. The context was different for the statues of Columbus.”

According to Grever, we also need to ensure that we don’t destroy everything. “Let’s be careful about this. Destroying statues is no medicine against racism,” she said. “We need these traces of the past, even if these are hard to stomach.” She gave an example of perpetrators’ heritage in the Netherlands, such as the Muur van Mussert (Wall of Mussert, red.), which is the subject of much debate. “Some people wanted to completely remove all traces of Nazi occupation, out of fear of neo-Nazi pilgrimages. But if they had done this, we would now no longer have any tangible evidence of what happened during the occupation.”

According to Grever, images and monuments must be retained in some way. “But there needs to be a good educational explanation alongside these. For instance, we could place statues of controversial figures in a museum and make an exhibition about them, placing the statues in a historical context. Which role did this person play in history, why did people admire him at the time and why are there protests against him today?” Personally, Grever thinks it is often better to erect a more abstract monument instead of a statue. “These are more ambiguous and evoke fewer negative emotions.”

Tangible culture is important 

In her new book, Grever describes how monuments act as an attraction: they are tangible and visible. “Like rituals, monuments can form anchor points for the remembrance of certain events in the past.”

She also writes about the difference between remembrance and memory. The first concerns the dynamic process of remembering. “So what we remember now about Van Heutsz is, for instance, different from what people remembered during the colonial period.” Memory, on the other hand, is the provisional outcome of collective remembrance. This collective memory is usually recorded in history education, traditions and monuments. But these also change in meaning over the course of time.

No advocate of the canon

Canons are also examples of how we form collective memory. The objective of the Dutch canon in 2006 was ‘to promote social cohesion and to define Dutch identity more clearly’. She is not an advocate of a top-down canon. “The canon is often too limited in terms of topics and perspectives. I also have difficulty with government interference in this,” explained Grever. “The new canon is indeed an improvement. It’s really good that more regions are involved as the whole thing was too Holland-centric. It is also good that Anton de Kom and Marga Klompé are included. But politicians must exercise restraint in defining the curriculum. They should not put their stamp on what the past should be.”

The objective of history education is actually that you learn historical thinking, continued Grever. “Pupils read and compare sources and texts, place these in a historical context and argue and discuss these. It then becomes clear that the past is often viewed from various perspectives. You don’t learn that with a canon.”

She also finds it strange that history education is not compulsory for all grades in secondary education in the Netherlands. “Over 65 percent of Dutch school pupils do not study history once they turn fifteen. How can you expect them to have any knowledge of Dutch history?” Her argument is therefore clear: “Make history lessons compulsory in the senior years in secondary education.”

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