Why some monuments spark controversy?

Top 10 controversial monuments in Europe

Dr. Ana Milosevic
10 min readFeb 22, 2018

The next time you walk past a public monument, try looking at it as a time-capsule — a message written in stone, placed in a public space and intended for posterity. Identify the sender and recipient, and then “open” its contents. Who made it and what for? What is the monument’s message?

Old City Cemetery time capsule Sacramento, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Monuments are just like time capsules. Sometimes they are precious echoes of the past, but more often — they are just full of useless trash: things we outgrew and ideas we no longer agree with.

Of course we don’t like everything from our past. Who does anyway? More often than not, we filter the past by selecting the bits we wish to keep, and embellish or ignore those we dislike. Some experiences have significant value, as they have shaped our existence in a positive way. We cherish and celebrate them. However, we have also few skeletons in the closet.

As a society, we sometimes confront our specters and make amends — we apologize and try to make up for our wrongdoings. Many believe that creation of a monument can soothe an ache and provide some kind of “compensation” for the wrongs inflicted and injustices suffered. For others, dismantlement of a controversial monument can be equally therapeutic.

However you look at it, the result-oriented memorialization and/or de-memorialization remain just pure acts of symbolism. Marble stones and copper statues can rise and fall. The ideas that brought these monuments into life are those we struggle with.

When the past is confused with the present, the monuments are the first to fall.

The current debate about confederate monuments in the US is a case in point. Over the last months a lot of discussion revolved around removing them from the public eye. While de-memorializing might be therapeutic for some, it is important to keep in mind that dismantlement of these controversial monuments is tied to present concerns. The past is still feared from in the present ( now maybe more than ever).

In Europe, we had our own share of confusion with what is the past and what it means for the present (and vice-versa). The memorial fever that spread across Europe after the 1989 sought to mend the history and its wounds using memorials and relying on their symbolism.

The efforts to break and deal with the past of the WWII and its aftermath were particularly prominent in the post-communist countries. Along the way, many old monuments became controversial or simply — they badly fitted the new present.

Looking back at the experiences of the post-communist Europe, it seems that many countries almost took a revenge on the past. As a consequence, “unattractive” past was often ransacked for political profit and the monuments paid the price. Old monuments were destroyed, vandalized and substituted with, sometimes equally controversial, new monuments.

Remembering and forgetting are, after all, two sides of the same coin.

In a certain sense, global memorial fever inverted the relationship between the past and the future. The vast majority of modern monuments are not made for the future but for a particular version of the past: the corrected one.

This is not, however, the only difference between the “old” and “new” monuments.

Differently from static monuments of the past, new monuments are dynamic — highly visual and performative. They capture our attention aiming for a reaction: to provoke, make us reflect — or simply to inspire an emotional response.

In terms of messages they convey, modern monuments sometimes resemble flashing billboards you can see on a traffic light. They are about slogans and target groups. They advertise ideas and views. They sell opinions about the present, or alternatively the past.

It remains to be seen what will future generations think about the monuments we made and that we continue producing en masse.

My guess: Overproduction of memorials will decrease their symbolic and emotional value.

Remembering will eventually make us forget. How’s that for irony?

Here are my top ten controversial monuments in Europe. Usual suspects excluded.

1. Alexander the Great statue in Skopje, Macedonia

Alexander the Great Statue: Wiki Commons.

The controversial bronze statue of the ancient warrior king Alexander the Great is situated on the main square in Macedonian capital, Skopje. Erected in 2011, the statue is placed on the top of a 12-m tall fountain. The monument is a crown jewel of neoclassical makeover given to the city that earned Skopje a not very flattering nickname : “the capital of kitsch”.

The monument is highly controversial because of its impact on country’s relations with Greece and its high cost. The city’s cosmetic uplift, of questionable taste, grounds country’s origins in Greek antiquity — or at the expense of it. It depends from where you stand on geographical and historical understanding of “Macedonia”. Needless to say, two countries have very different views on history.

2. King Leopold II statue in Brussels, Belgium

King Leopold II Statue in Brussels. Credits: Dennis Jarvis, Wiki Commons 2013.

King Leopold II (1865–1909) was the second king of Belgium and the architect behind colonization of Congo. Colonial rule of Belgium over Congo ended in the 1960s after decades of exploitation of people and resources.

Across Belgium there are still numerous references to the country’s colonial past. Yet, nothing is provoking more controversy than the copper statue of Leopold II on horseback.

(To be completely honest — before the last renovation, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren was equally controversial. At the entrance to museum stood a golden statue of a European missionary with a small African boy attached to his robes. Words engraved onto the plaque read: “Belgium brings civilization to Congo”.)

While some debate whether mass atrocities committed in Congo can be qualified as a genocide, many call for a nation-wide confrontation with Belgium’s colonial past. Dismantlement of Leopold’s statue is seen as the first step in that direction.

3. Gavrilo Princip statue in Belgrade, Serbia

In 2014 many European countries engaged in mass remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I. A chain of events that brought the world into global chaos is often brought in connection with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In 2015, his assassin Gavrilo Princip got its own statue in Belgrade.

Belgrade’s monument to Gavrilo Princip was a gift from Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb entity) which made its own statue to Princip in eastern Sarajevo in 2014. During official inauguration of the monument in Belgrade, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic said: “Gavrilo Princip was a hero, a symbol of the idea of freedom, the assassin of tyrants and the carrier of the European idea of liberation from slavery.”

The legacy of Princip has long been a source of tensions and divergent views on the past in the Balkans. For Serbs in the region, Princip was a hero — a freedom fighter who stood against the Austro-Hungarian rule. For Croats and Bosniaks of the region, Princip was a terrorist.

4. A memorial to deserters from the Wehrmacht, Vienna, Austria

Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice© Bwag/Wikimedia

In 2009, Austrian parliament issued a resolution to rehabilitate thousands of deserters from Hitler’s army, the Wermarcht. The resolution symbolically acknowledged the deserters, long seen as traitors. In 2014, a monument was erected to commemorate the “victims of Nazi military justice.”

The X-shaped monument is situated in the city center and in close proximity to Austria’s national war memorials in Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square. The Austrian Veterans’ Association, the OKB, opposed the monument and rehabilitation of deserters. Apparently for some the desertion is considered to be greater evil than being under the command of Adolf Hitler.

5. The Memory wound, Utøya, Norway

© Jonas Dahlberg

The attacks committed by Andres Breyvik on the July, 22, 2011 claimed 77 lives and left several hundred wounded. The plans for a monument on the island of Utøya have been circulating ever since. In 2014, the design of Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg has been selected for a memorial.

Called “Memory wound,” the project intended to remember the massacre by evoking strong feelings in the visitors. On a more practical level, the artist wanted to cut the island in half!

His idea was snubbed by environmental-friendly Norwegians that opposed changing of their natural landscape. But more than a negative environmental impact, the local residents were preoccupied with having a constant reminder of the massacre. They feared that the island and its surroundings will be affected by memorial tourism. Stating these reasons, a group of residents went to sue the Government. In 2017, Norway officially withdraw from the project.

6. The German monument to Freedom and Unity, Berlin, Germany

German Monument to freedom and unity. Screenshot Milla&Partner, 2016.

Decades after the German Reunification (1990) somebody realized that there’s no monument to celebrate the renewal of marriage vows between the East and the West.

Ambitious monument to the German Reunification (created by the company Milla & Partner) is yet another interactive monument — a new trend sparked by the memorial craze that started nearly three decades ago. An interactive monument employs architectural design to evoke emotion, stimulate a movement — in a word, interaction with the visitors. (Another example is the garden of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Brilliant architectural design of the garden simulates the feeling of losing the ground under your feet. And lots of dizziness, believe me.)

According to the firm in charge of the German Reunification project “the visitors themselves — the citizens who set the whole in motion — become an active part of the monument.” In practice, the monument will be a large moving bowl. A giant see-saw, or a rocking boat — if you like.

The plan for this massive and costly project was approved by the German Bundestag by the majority of members. However, it sparked a very lively debate on how the Germans of the East and the West still often don’t see eye to eye.

The monument, an expensive ode to unity, will be unveiled for the 30th anniversary of German Reunification in 2019.

7. Memorial of Rebirth, Bucharest, Romania

Memorial of Rebirth, Bucharest. Mister No [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ah, Romania! The land of Vlad the impaler mixed symbols of folklore and modern history in a monument.

The memorial of Rebirth is a massive construction made to commemorate the Revolution that ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and brought down the 40 year communist rule.

Intentionally, the monument is placed in Revolution Square (Piața Revoluției) where the dictator was publicly ousted in 1989. Unintentionally, the monument looks like an impaled potato on a stick. Pyramidal shape of the monument is chosen to symbolize the revolution as cumulative effort of the people that stood against the dictator.

Worth noting, in Romanian ‘to be given the pale’ means to be stood up. Many felt stood up seeing the monument for which Romanian tax payers paid amazing 1,5 million of euro.

8. The Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria

By Ignat Ignev — Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15545141

The future of monuments of the Soviet Army is not looking bright in post-communist Europe. Many statues to the Soviet liberators of the WWII have already been dismantled, destroyed or vandalized. The Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia makes no exception.

The monument was vandalized in numerous occasions, sometimes in very creative ways. In 2011, the soldiers were painted to look like American pop culture icons: Joker, Superman, Captain America, Ronald MacDonald, and Santa Claus. Awhile ago, it was painted with blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s flag. In other instances, like in 2013, a graffiti was painted over the monument reading: “Bulgaria apologizes.” Presumably — with the intention to mark the anniversary of the Prague Spring.

9. Pan-European Memorial for the Victims of Totalitarianism in Brussels, EU

Screen shot :The Platform of European Memory and Conscience, 2018.

My personal best: an anti-totalitarian monument. Since the fall of communism, the European Union and in particular the European Parliament have been very active in the field of remembrance. Especially when it comes to the WWII and its aftermath. As a result, several resolutions of the European Parliament underline anti-totalitarian stance of the EU. Yet, many intellectuals and political figures have been long opposing the EU’s equalization of Nazi-Fascism and Communism.

After resolution-making and museumisation ( the House of European History) comes also a monument “to the countless millions of victims of National Socialism, Fascism and Communism in Europe”. The project is led by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience and supported by the European People’s Party and the European Parliament. A tentative inauguration is planned for 23 August 2018.


Finally, what is controversial by my standards might not be by yours.

A controversial monument is, after all, a product of our own disagreements on the past — or a version of it.

Ana Milosevic

PhD Researcher in Political Science @LINESkuleuven | European memory, dealing with the past, terrorism | milosevic.eu

Dr. Ana Milosevic

Post-Doctoral Researcher, Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC) | European memory, dealing with the past, terrorism | milosevic.eu