February 5, 2014 3 Comments
A couple of years ago, Benedict Anderson visted Graz to give a talk on Why we believe our nation is good. I had the pleasure to take him on a city tour before the talk. On the Schlossberg, we looked at the monuments to different causes, commemorating resistance to Napoleon and commemorating the so-called “Kärtner Abwehrkampf”, i.e. the conflict between Austrian troops and troops of the State of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes over the border of Carinthia, settled later in a referendum.
On this sunny December day, he remarked poignantly that it is probably only scholars of nationalism that notice these monuments, whereas ordinary citizens walk past and ignore these monuments to an era that seems of little relevance today. To some degree, this is a relief, as most European cityscapes are littered with tributes in the form of monuments and street names to people whose contribution to the nation seems rather dubious today ( such as Conrad von Hötzendorf in Graz, von Hindenburg in numerous German cities, Gugielom Oberdan –thanks to Gregor Mayer for the hint in Italy). Some of the most odious cases have been corrected, such as changing the name of the Karl-Lueger-Ring, previously named in honor of the the notoriously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna (famous for the line Wer Jude ist bestimme ich–I determine who is a Jew). While it is desirable to change names of streets or remove monuments honoring anti-Semites and other extreme nationalists of the past, the void also leaves a gap in the history of city when they were honored. In brief, the city can forget its past. Belgradem not for that reason, but due to the contest nature of street names, put up a history of street names on some most prominent streets in the centre. This helps to map the different ideologies dominating, but implicitly also admits that the current name might be just temporary.
Now, unlike what Benedict Anderson remarked to me, the discussion over monuments and other forms of commemoration on the centenary of World War One, suggest that the past can attract a lot of attention and controversy (including on facebook). So the initiative build monuments to Gavrilo Princip in Republika Srpska and Serbia triggered negative reactions elsewhere (see article in Der Spiegel and esp. reader comments). While an assassin who killed a person is not a particular positive figure to celebrate, European states more broadly are fond to celebrate murders rather than peace makers (including of course the rider on a horse in Skopje, a.k.a. Alexsander the Great). A good approach to remedy this morbid European habit would be a European exchange program. Let’s exchange the ‘heroes’ of one country with those of another. Why not exchange the statue of Franz Joseph II in the University aula in Graz with a monument to Gavrilo Princip in Serbia, or exchange a street name.
The Gavrilo Princip Street in Belgrade would come to Graz to call the main street leading out of the city to the south, while that street’s name, Conrad-von-Hötzendorf Strasse could migrate to Belgrade, some of the statues in Skopje could go to Thessaloniki or Sofia, nobody would notice them missing and nobody would find them strange there. Ban Jelačić could visit Belgrade, while Knez Mihajlo could travel to Zagreb. Adem Jashari could leave Prekaz for Belgrade, the Eternal Flame in Belgrade (that lasted less an an eternity) could travel to Prishtina. Such exchanges would create unease, but also a need to explain, to justify: one hero in Europe is another one’s nemesis. It would provoke and maybe look more carefully at ones ‘owns’ monuments.