Most Americans would probably not look too kindly on a German university maintaining plaques dedicated to those who died fighting for Nazism. Most might also be able to sympathize with Jewish students who pay and enroll as anyone else — only to show up and be greeted with the commemoration of a regime that sought to exterminate them. It is deeply unfortunate, then, that this country is able to materialize such vicious outrage at the prospect of the University of Virginia removing its own Confederate plaques.
For argument’s sake, let’s return to the hypothetical German university. Ask yourself how you would look upon the German people if they expressed grief and anger over the removal of Nazi propaganda. It might give you the impression, perhaps, that they had fond memories of Hitler and his regime; that they enjoyed nostalgic glances back at that murderous time; that they wished to hold onto remnants of its existence.
But this is not the Germany we know today. In actuality, the nation has gone to great lengths to expunge any and all Nazism from its collective culture, political psychology and, for that matter, foreseeable future. And this is exactly how any reasonable, free, industrialized nation should approach its genocidal fallen regimes: With a cautious acknowledgement of the power of hatred, commitment to education and removal of the iconography of a vicious and disgusting past.
For better or worse, our previous missteps and failings have contributed to the great legacy we value today. But let’s get something straight: The Confederacy is not a point of pride for the South. It destroyed our economy, shackled our local governments to Northern control and decimated our population. Most importantly, it attempted to maintain the horrors of a world and an economy surviving on the savagery of human slavery.
The Congressional politics of the late 19th century were complicated but secession was unequivocally a huge political, tactical and economic mistake. And those who try to cloak its bloodshed in a golden glow of history, commemorative legacy or cultural preservation have no other aims but to resurrect the only part of the antebellum South they truly know or understand — white supremacy. For all the rich history and legacy of the American South, these cultural “preservers” seem awfully obsessed with a certain four years out of those past 300.
By removing these Confederate plaques, the University of Virginia is simply taking another important step toward removing another avenue for Confederate hero worship. For many years, the university has maintained plenty of other historical sites and commemorative decor in and around its campus. The University of Virginia values its cultural history; it simply refuses to celebrate a time in which it found itself on its most amoral and most misguided path.
Sure, those men died fighting to preserve their preferred culture and way of life; shall we also erect a statue of Joseph Goebbels, who died doing exactly the same thing? The fact remains that simply dying for a cause does not automatically warrant the veneration of your “sacrifice,” and thereby your cause. To choose to self-sacrifice for evil purposes also implies the right of your descendants to look back and see that sacrifice as unfortunate and unconscionable.
In a sense, these plaques are racist while also being seen as the participation ribbons of historical preservation. To dedicate one’s life to splitting and destroying the United States and the American legacy does not earn one’s right to be remembered on a plaque at a public American university.
We should laud the University of Virginia for taking an ethical approach to the curation of its campus history. Virginia, and the whole of the South for that matter, lives on today. It looks toward a future full of the rich culture, art and tradition for which it has always been known. The South is not the Confederate legacy — and it should refuse to be defined as such.