When France lost her statues
The Nazis knew the value of history – and of controlling it.
Therefore, when they occupied France, they set about destroying every vestige of the past that might preserve the seeds of liberty.
Before the Occupation, Paris (and France) had been speckled with diverse monuments to just about everyone and every political shade. Joan of Arc rubbed elbows with Voltaire. Louis XIV pranced on horseback along with Bonaparte. The Arc de Triomphe frieze depicts the Empire's victorious generals, but also General Louis Marie Turreau, whose exploits in the Vendée could have competed for cruelty with those of the SS on the Eastern Front.
The French accepted all of these dichotomies with a Gallic shrug. History was history.
But, abruptly, history was about to be reshaped.
Under German "cultural" guidance, the harvest of undesirable statues began. Down came Desmoulins, Gambetta, Victor Hugo (no more Les Misérables); and Alexandre Dumas, the father of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Zola (defender of Dreyfus) went into the melting furnace. Rousseau was dumped on the scrap heap. The ideals of the Revolution were to be expunged. Marat was assassinated a second time.
All of this is neatly chronicled (and illustrated with copious photos) in La Mort et les Statues (Death and the Statues), by Pierre Jahan.
Alas, France has still not recovered, nearly eighty years after. The statue of General Alexandre Dumas (a black soldier from Haiti who at one point commanded three armies of the Revolution, accompanied Bonaparte to Egypt, and then fell afoul of the Corsican's efforts to turn the Revolution into his own private Empire) has still not been replaced.
A statue of Dreyfus has long been proposed, but it has proven controversial (why?). Originally planned for display at the French military academy, it was eventually tucked away in an obscure square in Paris, where hardly anyone will see it.
But, you will say, America is not France. We are not an occupied state. We live and breathe the free and tolerant air of a democratic society. Each of us can pursue his own ethnic identity and admire his own private heroes without concern that we are stepping on the toes of others or that a single faction will impose a set of narrow ideologies on us.
Surely that kind of reinvention (or "purifying") of history can't happen here, in the Land of the Free.
Or can it?