5 Controversial Monuments Around the World

See recent posts by Kyle Valenta

On August 12, the world watched as several days of riotous protests broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia. While violence surrounding issues of racism is certainly nothing new in the United States, recent years have seen various groups fighting against the removal of monuments dedicated to the Confederacy under the guise of culture. And although Charlottesville is a flash point, around the country, cities and states have begun dismantling Confederate legacies. New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Confederate generals would be removed from the CUNY Hall of Fame for Great Americans, while Baltimore chose to take down four major Confederate statues under the cover of darkness.

Monuments are a tricky business, though, and the world at large has had to struggle with issues relating to who is being memorialized, who is doing the memorializing, and at what cost -- socially, emotionally, and economically. Major strife has occurred around the world over these contentious public spaces, which include everything from temples to statues to war memorials. Read on for some insight into how the rest of the world has dealt with their controversial monuments, with varying degrees of success and failure -- and everything in between.

1. Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan

Yasukuni Shrine; Toshihiro Gamo/Flickr

Yasukuni Shrine; Toshihiro Gamo/Flickr

While Japan is technically a nation that enshrined peace in its constitution in the wake of World War II, the legacy of its actions during the war still inform contemporary world politics. You can see reverberations of this in everything from the current nuclear strife between North Korea and the United States to continuing debates within Japan over its pacifistic stance in light of increasingly aggressive neighbors. 

There is also ongoing tension within the region over the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto place of worship that ostensibly commemorates the sacrifices of Japanese soldiers since the late 19th century — well before World War II. However, it also serves as a place of remembrance for war criminals. According to Public Radio International, while over two million souls are enshrined at the temple, at least 1,000 of those are thought to be war criminals. In the last decade, visits to the temple by prime ministers and other government officials has provoked the scorn of South Korea in particular, which views it as an affront to any official atonement for atrocities committed by the Japanese in the region during the war. 

2. Guan Yu in Tuban, Indonesia

As religiously extreme movements seek to capitalize on elections everywhere from the United States to India to Indonesia, it’s perhaps no surprise that tensions over diversity and inclusion are a worldwide problem. Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation on earth, has for decades had a constitutional tradition of secularism and tolerance among its religions, which include Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and many other smaller faiths. 

Today, parts of the country, like Aceh, are allowed to practice versions of Shariah law outside of the nation’s existing legal system, and sectarianism is beginning to show its face on a national level more prevalently. According to Reuters, local Muslims threatened to tear down a 100-foot-tall statue of Guan Yu, a Chinese deity associated with Confucianism, that was erected in July 2017. In order to temporarily keep the peace while a permanent solution is drafted, the local government draped the statue in a massive white sheet.  

3. Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India

When the British decided to vacate South Asia, they left behind a disaster. India’s partition into Pakistan and India, and then again into Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, cost hundreds of thousands of lives as ethnic, religious, and caste tensions — along with impossibly long journeys to their new countries — exacted its toll. The religious component of that strife has not died down, and in recent years, Hindu nationalist policies have begun sharpening lines between Muslims and Hindu neighbors even more dangerously. 

It’s no secret that tensions between Hindu and Muslim Indians go back well before the British even arrived, with a series of emperors and dynasties trading power across the country’s north for centuries. Certainly some of that historical memory was at play during the crisis around the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. 

According to Hindu beliefs, the mosque is built on the site of the birthplace of the god Rama, which may have once been home to a revered temple. In December of 1992, a rally by Hindu extremists took place at the mosque. The mob began rioting and destroyed the mosque. Since then, India’s Supreme Court has attempted to resolve the issue by partitioning the land, though strife around the site is ongoing and there is still no settled legal status.

4. Valley of the Fallen in Madrid, Spain

Valle de los Caidos; Raul A.-/Flickr

Valle de los Caidos; Raul A.-/Flickr

Underneath a massive hilltop cross that’s visible for miles around — and even from the air as you approach Madrid’s Barajas Airport — is one of Spain’s most controversial monuments, the Valley of the Fallen. The massive structure was completed over two decades under the reign of Francisco Franco. It was built under the guise of uniting the nation in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. In reality, the site — an officially recognized Catholic place of worship — was constructed by political prisoners, many of whom died during its construction. 

To this day, the basilica still holds the grave of Franco, though laws have been tightened in recent decades about the displays allowed here. (Flowers of remembrance for Franco and protests against him are both banned on the site by the government.) The grounds are also estimated to hold approximately 30,000 graves of soldiers from both sides of the war, according to The Telegraph

And while political movements have been afoot to remove the general’s grave from the site, the current ruling government refuses to allow that to happen over fears of dividing a nation. As of now, it remains a destination for many, and still serves as an active church, with daily masses and sacraments performed on-site. 

Soviet Monuments Across Eastern Europe

Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument; Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr

Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument; Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the issue of what to do with the monuments erected by the regime across Eastern Europe’s newly independent nations has been thorny — to say the least. These have included giant statues of Lenin, depictions of soldiers mourning their fallen brethren, and monuments to communist struggles. According to The New York Times, the current government in Poland has designated nearly 500 pro-communist monuments as needing removal across the country. Elsewhere, in Bulgaria and Estonia, the proposed removal of Soviet-era monuments has caused protests and rioting by ethnic Russians and Soviet sympathizers. 

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