Memorial to a very, very oppressive something

Say what you want about Stalin; he had an efficient decision process. There was that murderous regime, though.

It may seem hard to believe now, but until 1989 the museum at Auschwitz basically ignored the former concentration camp’s central role in the Holocaust; for years it was merely a monument to the struggle against fascism. Only after the victory of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of Communism was the place turned into a proper memorial to Jewish suffering.

Disgusting, yes, but hardly surprising. Plaques, monuments, museums—all are political devices aimed at serving one version of the past over the rest. But, however twisted the nature of the Auschwitz memorial under the Soviets may have been, at least you get the sense there wasn’t a lot of pussyfooting around about it. Stalin probably gave an order and it was carried out (or, given his famously opaque management style, his underlings probably just assumed that was what he wanted). Say what you want about Communism under Stalin, at least it had an efficient decision-making procedure.

Of course, another thing you might want to say about Communists is that they ran murderous regimes that terrorized half the world for half a century—an assertion that a few weeks ago seemed almost beyond the capacities of the National Capital Commission’s board of directors. At issue was a proposal to establish in Ottawa a monument to the “victims of totalitarian Communism,” a $1.5-million project, to be funded by private donations, that has been under way for three years. At a meeting on Sept. 10, the board finally passed a motion supporting the concept of the memorial, but only after concerns about its title were raised by almost every member.

Originally it was to be called the “monument to the victims of Communism.” But some NCC experts suggested that was too broad. They proposed adding the word “totalitarian,” so as not to offend the sensibilities of those Canadians who still affiliate themselves with the science of historical materialism. But this didn’t sit well with some board members, and in the course of the recent debate, it was suggested that the monument’s focus was actually too narrow, and ought to be against totalitarianism in all its forms. Still others thought the project should highlight Canada’s long-standing service as refuge for victims of oppressive regimes, to which one board member objected, saying Canada was hardly on the side of the angels, given our treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

The last meeting ended with the board approving a monument, though everyone was left wondering of what sort. News reports of the proceedings drew international attention, most of it mocking, and Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney stood up in the House of Commons to affirm his ongoing support for a monument to the victims of Communism.

The NCC has since moved with unusual dispatch and quickly approved the title, “A Memorial to Victims of Totalitarian Communism—Canada, a Land of Refuge.” The two groups leading the project put out a press release thanking the NCC for its efforts, though Charles Coffey, honorary chair of the initiative, couldn’t resist in a dig: “Probably the board members at the NCC, like so many Canadians, are simply unaware of the scope and scale of Communism. This monument will help to change that.”

In many ways, this is the perfect confluence of political correctness, bureaucratic buffoonery, and Canadian narcissism—a source of no end of glee for right-wingers and red-baiters. It also fits with past NCC behaviour—in 2007, the steward of federal lands and buildings in the capital removed a portrait of Lord Durham from Sparks Street Mall on the grounds that a panel beneath it failed to mention that in addition to bringing responsible government to the colonies, he advocated the assimilation of French Canadians.

But the truth is, in a democracy, any public monument of any seriousness is going to have to deal with contending stakeholders with contradictory and equally legitimate interpretations of the past. Canada is a pluralistic country populated by successive waves of immigrants and refugees, many of whom fled some sort of hardship or oppression and carry with them a particular sense of grievance. Trying to navigate these competing viewpoints is difficult at the best of times, and far more fraught when what is at issue are claims of oppression, murder, and genocide. Sometimes it leads to things like the Communist monument absurdity, or the more general fiasco over the Plains of Abraham re-enactment last summer—although the ongoing wrangling over the 9/11 memorial in New York City shows that no country, and no tragedy, is immune from controversy.

So, instead of lamenting this, perhaps we should celebrate the fact that, unlike Stalin’s hijacking of Auschwitz, our governments can’t merely press the past into whatever ideological shapes they desire. We may have cartoonishly sensitive bureaucrats who fall over themselves trying to ensure no one takes offence, but that may not be a flaw of our system but a benefit. Or, as programmers like to say, it’s not a bug but a feature.

In fact, the actual name of the museum, or its presence, may not be as important as the valiant if amusing debate that preceded it. Really, monuments of this sort are best left to the totalitarians. Who needs a slab of stone reminding of Communism’s horrors when you have democracy? To twist a line from Bertolt Brecht: don’t pity the country that has no memorials. Pity the country that needs them.

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