It’s inevitable that we will always want to commemorate our renowned men and women by building monuments to them. The monument is a sign that the person is honored and remembered. It’s also just as inevitable that we remember the notorious evildoers of history—either out of a sense of justice, a wish to prevent future horrors, or simple morbid fascination. But what if some of these saviors and scoundrels were the same people?
Rarely is history divided neatly into spotless saints and vicious villains. Sometimes, those we lionize have dark deeds lurking in their pasts. The polished stone of some monuments hides such darkness. At best, these memorials seek to recognize the achievements of a person in spite of their misdeeds, overlooking the vices while celebrating the virtues. At worst, the statues’ builders put them up with full knowledge of the figure’s crimes—with some monuments raised on the very bloodstained ground where the victims perished.
Read on for the following murderers immortalized in stone and metal . . .
This article was a harrowing one to research and write, particularly for those massacres I was already aware of.
I can say that only two history books have ever caused me to weep openly – one concerning the Great Irish Potato Famine, and one concerning the Sepoy Mutiny and subsequent massacres at Cawnpore. They stick out for me not because these horrific events are somehow uniquely horrific, but because the records we are lucky (?) enough to have are particularly evocative and heartrending. Not for the faint of heart.
One other thing I noticed while working on this article was a disparity in the way monuments to controversial figures are treated. The process of a people becoming ashamed of its own previously-monumentalized figures and tearing down those monuments seems to be largely an American (cum Western) phenomenon.
Here I am not referring to new regimes destroying the monuments of a previous one in order to cement its grip on power, such as was seen (for example) in post-Czarist Russia. I mean monument demolitions or removals due to cultural changes, not regime change. As referred to in the article, there does not seem to be any great outcry from Haitians to wipe away the memory of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or Mongolians to wipe away that of Genghis Khan, despite their well-known atrocities, that matches (for instance) the recurring waves of protest at Confederate monuments in the United States. There certainly seems to be a unique tendency to look askance at national history here – though I’m sure many will disagree over whether this tendency stems more from laudable self-examination or nihilistic cultural suicide.