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The daunting task facing Europe: How can one address an issue such as Hitler?

The immense task facing Europe: How can the issue of Hitler be resolved?

The city of Berlin made efforts to remove the monuments associated with Hitler’s Third Reich. However, Rome still contains numerous reminders of Il Duce.

Aitor Hernández-Morales

Aleksandra Stanglewicz

This piece is a component of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a joint reporting initiative that delves into the future of urban areas. Subscribe here.

In the outskirts of Berlin, housed within a 450-year-old fortress, there is a warehouse where an abnormally large bust sits in the shadows, awaiting restoration.

The colossal marble bust is not in its prime condition – its surface is scraped, its ears are damaged, and its nose is absent – yet, its distinctive hairstyle and Charlie Chaplin-esque mustache make it easily identifiable. This is an extraordinary representation of Adolf Hitler – and it is incredibly scarce.

Urte Evert, the director of the Spandau Citadel museum in western Berlin, stated that Hitler did not desire to establish a conventional cult of personality centered around himself, particularly not through statues. Evert added that Hitler was averse to seeing representations of himself, setting him apart from other dictators.

Evert mentioned that the bust, discovered by construction workers in Berlin, was probably created for a government ministry during the Third Reich era. It was soon transported to Evert after being unearthed and added to the collection of once respected individuals who now reside at the citadel, which houses the world’s sole museum of “retired” monuments.

The Teutonic knights made of marble and bronze, along with Prussian generals, Russian revolutionary leaders, Nazi “supermen,” and East German border guards, can all be found in Evert’s museum. Despite representing vastly different ideals, they share one thing in common: They were once praised as role models, but are now shunned as outcasts who do not align with contemporary values.

The group of sculptures serves as a strong indication of how the public’s adoration can change quickly, and it presents a solution to the dilemma: What should be done with controversial monuments that represent a discredited past? Should these statues, which no longer align with our beliefs or may even disgust us, be demolished? Concealed? Or maintained and explained in the context of a troubling past?

Germany’s response to the question was clear, with the exception of the Spandau Citadel. Following the atrocities of World War II, there was an agreement that destruction was the only appropriate solution. For a year, the occupying military forces from the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union forbade any display of German militarism or the Nazi Party, including monuments, memorials, posters, statues, buildings, street signs, symbols, tablets, or emblems.

The bronze statue commemorating the victims of the Nazi-led Beer Hall Putsch in Munich was shattered. A massive marble swastika dominating the party’s parade grounds in Nuremberg was detonated with explosives. In the devastated city of Berlin, the remaining parts of Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery were demolished and streets named after Nazi leaders were changed.

Despite attempts to eradicate it, remnants of Hitler’s regime remained. Soviet officials in Berlin retained certain Nazi sculptures, such as the bronze horses originally exhibited at the Führer’s headquarters, and placed them at a nearby military facility.

Evert stated that the statues were painted gold and remained standing until they departed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was widely known that the statues represented the Nazi regime, but no one spoke out against them.

Berlin’s strategy is noticeably different from that of the birthplace of fascism: Rome is filled with constant reminders of Benito Mussolini.

The individuals featured in Evert’s museum, such as the Teutonic knights made of marble and bronze, Prussian generals, Russian revolutionary leaders, Nazi “supermen”, and East German border guards, all share a common characteristic – they are considered outcasts who do not align with modern beliefs and principles.

Close to the Mouth of Truth, the registration office of the city still displays a marble plaque commemorating its opening by the leader. On the other side of town, a 57-foot tall obelisk with the words “Mussolini Leader” overlooks a sports facility from the 1930s, featuring a mosaic floor with the dictator’s initials repeated throughout.

The EUR district, built during the fascist era, is highlighted by the Square Coliseum, with a quote by Mussolini engraved on its front, and the Palazzo degli Uffici, showcasing a marble relief depicting Mussolini alongside Italian icons such as Giuseppe Garibaldi.

After Mussolini was ousted in 1943, many monuments were destroyed, but for Italians who were recovering from the war, destroying them was not a top concern.

According to Giulia Albanese, a history professor at Padua University who has studied the prevalence of fascist symbols in Italy, citizens’ groups advocated for the elimination of prominent fascist propaganda symbols, such as the fasces. However, due to the large number of these symbols and other pressing issues, their demands were not fully addressed.

Around 1,400 monuments associated with fascism are still present in various cities in Italy. In 2014, during the initiation of Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stood in front of the “Apotheosis of Fascism,” a massive mural depicting Mussolini as a divine being.

Albanese recognized that although Italy should improve how it presents the fascist monuments still present in public areas, it would be illogical to eliminate them “at this time.”

According to Evert from the Spandau Citadel museum, there is no single solution for what to do with monuments that have been discredited. While she understands the actions of protesters who have destroyed statues of colonizers or toppled celebrations of enslavers, she also believes that certain controversial monuments hold some significance.

She stated that it is crucial to protect these statues, whether they are displayed in a museum or left in their original outdoor locations. It is important to provide appropriate historical context when presenting them. Although encountering these statues may be challenging and even painful, it allows us to gain insights from the past and contemplate our current societal values.

She stated that humans are complex and even those who stir up controversy have admirable qualities worth imitating. She mentioned that there is ongoing discussion in countries like Great Britain about individuals such as Winston Churchill, who was a skilled leader but also supported colonialism and racist beliefs.

She said that maybe it’s simpler for us in Germany because we’re accustomed to the concept that individuals are not entirely good or bad.

She did, nonetheless, have one exemption: “There was nothing positive about Hitler,” she stated.