Let me immediately make it clear that I am vehemently opposed to bigotry and slavery, and no, I’m not a great-great grandson of a plantation owner. I don’t refer to one of my ancestors as “my grandpappy” or “pawpaw” either.
I was born and raised in Chicago, and just the other day when discussing a highly boring Super Bowl, I mentioned to a twenty-three-year-old that I attended the University of Illinois and was there when Dick Butkus played for the Illini in the 1960’s. The young man then asked, “So who’s Dick Butkus?” I instantly knew that Georges Santayana was accurate when he so astutely stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or perhaps those who aren’t aware of the past may merely wallow in shallowness or mediocrity when analyzing current events. Like that kid with whom I was discussing football. How can he have an even remotely valid opinion of great linebackers, if he isn’t aware of names such as Lambert, Nitchke, and Butkus?
I truly understand why Speaker Pelosi might wish to remove the statue of General Lee from public view. Slavery is an abomination, a blemish on this nation’s history, and as a liberal Democrat, she enjoys the support of minority groups. From the standpoint of supporting her constituency, removing that statue makes sense, and perhaps she missed a momentous photo opportunity by not being filmed kicking the statue or defacing it.
You see, I’m a Jew. I firmly believe that Georges Santayana’s warning must be heeded, and that any action which limits our future generations’ ability to study and comprehend the lessons of the past increases the likelihood that similar, immoral decisions will be made in the future.
The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. was opened in 1993 and is this nation’s official memorial to the Holocaust. More than 19.5 million people from 238 nations have walked the halls of that museum, and I hope you have been one of them.
We must remember, lest we forget.
And we must be reminded, by teaching, by studying, by having memorials to even the darkest times in our nation’s history. So I am opposed to the removal of a statue of General Lee from the rotunda, just as I would be opposed to either the federal government or the House of Representatives of the State of South Carolina embarking on a project to close a Civil War cemetery in Beaufort.
From the Beaufort (South Carolina) National Cemetery website …
“This national cemetery was established in 1863 for the burial of Union soldiers who died during the Federal occupation of Beaufort and for the internment of Union soldiers’ remains from various locations in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. More than 9,000 Union soldiers or veterans are buried here; 4,400 of them are unknown, including 2,800 prisoners of war from the camp at Millen, Georgia. Seventeen hundred African-American Union soldiers are also buried at Beaufort National Cemetery. One hundred and seventeen Confederate soldiers are buried here.”
A cemetery on Southern soil honoring fallen solders of the Union army may be considered by some as a blemish to the landscape of the fine State of South Carolina. But I say the blemish would be its absence. Perhaps her constituents might consider it a moral victory to have graves disturbed and remains destroyed and have all traces of the Civil War removed from that site. But there is an omnipresent danger in decisions of this type. Begin a program to eliminate educational awareness and reminders of that time in our history, and a future generation might consider slavery, or another Holocaust, as a politically expedient alternative.
I don’t have much interest in Germany as a nation. I, for one, will never forget the Holocaust, and I would never visit that country. To contemplate the possibility that some day, as NATO nations may join together to combat Russia and we are fighting side by side with soldiers of the Wehrmacht, is to contemplate the bizarre and incomprehensible. But that’s a topic for a future article. I vividly remember an episode of “Sixty Minutes” many years ago, in which Mike Wallace was chatting with the mayor of a quaint little city in Germany. The cameras panned streets with buildings erected in classic German village architectural style, flowerboxes were everywhere, and the mayor expressed disbelief that tourism statistics were so low. He was perplexed and frustrated that so few appreciated the charms and serenity of this German town named Dachau. I’ll bet rich soil produces award-winning flower boxes. Charming.
Here’s a quote from an article published in Artnet News on May 3rd, 2015.
“Munich’s newest museum, the Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, attempts to address a dark chapter in Germany’s history– the Nazi period.
“The ‘Nazi Museum’ as it is popularly known opened April 30, which was the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s suicide and Munich’s fall to American forces at the close of World War II. Both Holocaust survivors and American veterans of the war were on hand for dedication ceremonies.
“’Munich had a harder time with this than all the other cities in Germany because it is also more tainted than any other city,’ said museum director Winfried Nerdinger of the birthplace of the Nazi party to the AFP. ‘This is where it all began.’
“The museum is housed in a new building constructed amid neo-classical buildings that were once the headquarters of the Nazi party. Hitler opened the National Socialist German Workers’ Party office in Munich in 1930.”
I have to give the mayor and citizens of Munich great credit for the decision to create a “Nazi Museum.” With that decision, they have made a profound statement, something like, “This is our history, this is when we went astray, and this is who we are today.”
Bravo for the people of Munich. I still am not fond of Germany, however, and I admit that holding a grudge against someone, or against an entire nation, isn’t one of my most admirable traits. And I feel that way because I am often reminded of that hideous chapter in the history of mankind. I am taught. We have memorials to the Holocaust, but fewer and fewer testimonials, and in another fifty years, we will only have what has been written and fading memorials to withstand the test of time.
So I am opposed to relegating General Lee to a basement. I am opposed to someone also possibly deciding that slavery was such an abomination that all references to the Civil War be stricken from our children’s textbooks. We must be resolute in our obligation to recognize and teach the past. We honor Thomas Jefferson, a plantation and slave owner, as the principal creator of our Declaration of Independence. But it is also our obligation to teach his shortcomings and misdeeds, as well. We can only remember and be disgusted by the lessons of this nation’s history if we choose to face those moments head-on. We can only learn the lessons of history if we are aware those moments existed, and that is why General Lee deserves to be on display. To replace his likeness with that of Rosa Parks confuses me.
Without reminders, Nancy, without the repetitive study of history and its application to the present and our future, members of new generations will continue to ask, “So who is Dick Butkus?” Or perhaps they’ll ask, “What’s a Nazi?” and “What’s a Holocaust?” Or, “What’s wrong with slavery?” And we would actively contribute to those future challenges by having a statue of a general of the Confederacy removed from where it belonged.
Keep the atrocities of slavery, a tragic event in our history, in the open for all to see, teach those events vividly to our children, and the likelihood those events may reoccur is diminished. Bury them, remove statues and references in journals and history classes, and the likelihood of a reoccurrence is enhanced. Georges Santayana was certainly not a fool, and we all must heed his warning.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Alan N. Levy, who died in 2019, was a political columnist at Audere, blogger at The Times of Israel, and the author of The Tenth Plague, an acclaimed geo-political thriller that focuses on a future with a nuclear-armed Iran, published in September from Chickadee Prince Books. The book is available right now in paperback at your local bookstore, from Amazon and B&N, and also on Kindle.
Image of Robert E. Lee designed by Steven S. Drachman. This piece has been edited for accuracy and clarity.