The statues of Heinrich Heine, and of Thomas Jefferson
by Lev Tsitrin
As King Solomon observed way back when, nothing is new under the sun. The recent vote of New York City Council to move the statue of Thomas Jefferson out of sight — i.e. out of their meeting room where it stood since 1915, consequently moving him out of mind, reminded me of Solomon’s saying, by bringing to mind the Nazi removal of the statues of the famous German poet Heinrich Heine in 1930s.
The reasons were somewhat different. A slave-owner and womanizer, Thomas Jefferson apparently introduced an unwelcome stain of corruption and sin to the gathering of incorruptible New York politicians, lowering the aggregate moral standing of the assembled counsel from the level of the chamber’s ceiling to that of its floor. Heinrich Heine presented a different problem to the Nazi pure-breeds: he stained German culture by an unforgivable sin of his having being born Jewish, his later baptism (which cleared him of any stain in the eyes of his Christian contemporaries) having no power to remove the racial blot which covered him and his words from head to toes.
Removing Heine’s statues was the easy part; erasing his cultural legacy was much harder. Many of his poems were set to music by Germany’s greatest composers, becoming folk songs. The New York City Council has a similar problem. It will be interesting to see how will New York politicians get around mentioning Jefferson’s name when commemorating July 4th, for instance: Jefferson’s contribution to its drafting was rather considerable. Canceling Heine in Nazi Germany proved not an easy task; canceling Jefferson in America may prove even tougher.
Of course, Heine is not the only example of political cancellation of a major historical and cultural figure. Long before there was Photoshop, Soviet leaders who turned out to be enemies of the people, and were liquidated for the sake of revolution, were Photoshopped out of group pictures of Soviet leadership.
How does one deal with history? Orwell’s 1984, describing the Soviet experience, suggested editing history according to the way the political winds blow. Until now, America was spared this experience, but it looks like American history is in for a Great Edit. Here is the start of the new Declaration of Independence, I guess: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one generation of the people to dissolve the historical bands which have connected them with another,” etc. You get the idea.
Old Solomon was right, nothing is new under the Sun — including the consequences of the desire to trash what is old so as to build what is new. As the Communist and Nazi experience shows, trashing the old is an easy part. Destruction is simple. Building the new — the new that is habitable, that is, is much harder — the much-touted “new” too often turning out to be but the old, hellish regime of tyranny and oppression — as the variety of recent revolutions, whether Communist, Nazi, or Islamic, amply demonstrates. Is that what the self-righteous “progressives” have in store for America? It sure sounds that way, for removing the statue of Jefferson is surely only a prelude for removing his ideas. Jeffersonian democracy? Who cares? Comrade Sanders and the Squad know better!
Removal of a statue seems like a small thing — yet it is a symptom of something much, much bigger. Nazis removed the statues of Heine, but was far from the sum of what they did. Let’s hope that our reformers’ zeal satisfies itself with symbolic acts like the removal of Jefferson’s statute. If not, we are in for a very, very great trouble.