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Should Rhodes stay or should he go? On the ethics of removing controversial statues

This is an unedited version of an article originally published by The Conversation.

Picture this: it’s 20 April 2021 and the charming Austrian village of Braunau am Inn – Hitler’s birth place – reveals a new statue of Adolf Hitler on the main square. In his inauguration speech, the mayor stresses that although Hitler obviously did many immoral deeds, he also achieved some good things, such as building motorways and railroads, and advancing rocket science. With the new statue, the village wishes to commemorate Hitler’s valuable contributions to Germany and Austria, contributions from which many still reap benefits.

If this scenario were to occur,[1] it would cause a public outcry. It would be considered offensive and disrespectful towards Hitler’s victims and their families. It would also be seen as conveying implicit approval or tolerance of the atrocities that were committed in his name, perhaps making the village authorities complicit in the continuing stigmatisation of those same groups targeted by Hitler. In no time, the village would succumb to the pressure to take it down.

Removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town

If there are good reasons not to erect a statue of Hitler, are there also good reasons to remove existing statues that some find problematic, such as that of the controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes?

In January, after months of heated debate and Rhodes Must Fall activism, Oxford University’s Oriel College decided to leave a statue of Rhodes on his pedestal at the front of the college. But protests are continuing against Oriel’s decision – mixed in with calls to remove statues of other controversial imperialist figures.

Perhaps one could argue that there is a moral difference between erecting a new statue and leaving an existing statue in place, because erecting a new statue always sends a much stronger message. For example, erecting a statue of Hitler sends the message that Hitler’s deeds were not all that immoral, or, even stronger, were praiseworthy, and this may affect attitudes to Jews, homosexuals, and others targeted by Hitler. Simply leaving an existing statue in place arguably sends no such message and will thus have no such effect.

But though in general it may be true that leaving an existing statue in place does not send any strong message, this is not always so. Whether preserving a statue implicitly condones past immoral deeds and thus supports ongoing injustice will depend on several factors.

It will depend on how bad the wrongdoing was. Some may argue that Rhodes’ overtly racist utterances and his exploitation of Africans, however immoral, are not on a par with what Hitler did, and that this explains the difference with our hypothetical case. But even if this is so, it may not be the full story. Current effects matter too. Few people would protest against ancient statues of Roman emperors in European cities although some of these emperors did extremely immoral things and stand for values that we no longer wish to endorse. Given the passage of time and the changes in values that have occurred, there seems little reason to suppose that leaving Roman statues in place expresses support for the permissibility of random killings, slavery, and forced human-animal fights, for instance. Contrast this with the recent case of Jimmy Savile,[2] the late BBC presenter who, it turned out, sexually abused more than 70 people, including children. Savile’s family decided to take down the triple headstone at his grave ‘out of respect to public opinion, to those who are buried there, and those who tend their graves and visit there’, and in no time other statues and inscriptions were also removed. Savile’s crimes were very recent, many of his victims are still alive, and the sexist values and power hierarchies that enabled his crimes to go unreported remain a problem. Thus, though Savile’s crimes were morally not on a par with those of Hitler, leaving memorials in place could have had a considerable impact on the lives of his victims. It also had the potential to facilitate similar wrongdoing in the future.

Yet another relevant factor is how strong the demand for the removal of the statue is, at least in countries where people are free to express such a demand. If there is a serious and concerted effort to have a statue removed, and if this is supported by reasonable arguments, retaining the statue may implicitly condone the controversial values at stake in a way that it would not if there were little demand for removal.

Of course, even if there are good reasons to take down a statue, these might be outweighed. The statue might have great aesthetic or historical value, for instance, or the financial cost of removal may be high. Whether the reasons for removing the statue outweigh such countervailing considerations is something that will need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Reasons for removing Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town are not necessarily good reasons to remove it at the University of Oxford.

But even where reasons to keep a statue in place win out, there may be a significant moral cost, and this should be recognised and where possible rectified. For example, if by retaining the Rhodes statue, Oriel College implicitly condones racism or contributes to the underrepresentation of Black and minority ethnic students and staff in Oxford, then it should seek to mitigate this. This could be done by, for example, explicitly disavowing racism, providing easily accessible information about Rhodes’ deeds, and explaining in detail the reasons for leaving the statue in place. Perhaps it would be appropriate to add a plaque to the Rhodes statue that briefly mentions his problematic past and contains a brief statement distancing the college from his values. Perhaps the plaque mentioning his name should simply be removed so that the statue becomes less of a memorial to the man, and more an artistic object. Perhaps a deeper investigation into the injustices perpetrated by Rhodes and their long term effects would be appropriate.

Most importantly, though, the college should take concrete measures to offset any effect that retaining the statue might have on the maintenance of injustice against Black and minority ethnic students ad staff. The Rhodes Trust, which administers the scholarships that bear Rhodes’ name, has taken an important step in this direction through founding the Mandela-Rhodes foundation, which supports African students undertaking tertiary study in South Africa.

The Max Planck Society in Germany could serve as an example as we think about how to deal with statues of Rhodes,  and others. Many of the scientists of the Society’s predecessor organisation – the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS) – were involved in Nazism during WWII. This involvement ranged from sympathising with National Socialism, to advocating problematic forms of eugenics, to collaborating with Josef Mengele. In 1997, the Society appointed a committee to address the history of KWS (a 10-year project resulting in 17 volumes of research), organised a symposium about the results (surviving victims attended), and apologised to the victims. It also recently started up a 7-year research project to study the history of the Society from 1948 onwards to, among other things, study any other ethical lapses to be able to prevent them in the future. Information about its problematic history and the measures taken to deal with it is easily accessible on their website.

So, should Rhodes stay or should he go? If he stays at Oriel there will be trouble. But this trouble could be minimised if the college explicitly distances itself from any problematic values Rhodes stands for and, crucially, makes a serious effort to tackle the current injustices that Rhodes and those sharing his values contributed to.

I’d like to end by drawing attention to another example that deserves some discussion, one of my own country. Leopold II, King of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, privately owned and controlled what he (ironically) named the Congo Free State, an area in Central Africa 76 times the size of Belgium. His reign in the Congo was characterised by extreme cruelty meted out in the pursuit of personal profit from the region’s ivory and rubber resources. Historian Tim Stanley:

“Villages were set quotas of rubber and the gendarmerie were sent in to collect it – a process that was sped up by looting, arson and rape. If a village failed to reach its quota hostages would be taken and shot. To ensure that the gendarmerie didn’t waste their bullets hunting for food, they were required to produce the severed hands of victims. As a consequence a trade in severed hands developed among the villagers and those police that couldn’t reach their quotas.”

Leopold's policy resulted in a trade of hands
Leopold’s policy resulted in a trade of hands

It is estimated that around 10 million people were killed as a result of Leopold’s policies. Many others were left mutilated. Yet there are statues and busts of Leopold II all over Belgium. There have been small-scale initiatives to have some of these removed, but none have succeeded, even though Leopold II was arguably (nearly?) as evil as Hitler. There are also ongoing effects from his reign over The Congo (DR Congo is still one of the poorest countries of Africa). What’s missing is a strong concerted demand to address the issue. Perhaps the fact that the statues are in the public space (as opposed to a college) makes a difference, or that the subject of controversy is royalty. Nevertheless, I hope that the RhodesMustFall-debate will inspire some debate about whether we can simply leave Leopold’s statues in place, without undertaking any other measures.

Statue of Leopold II in Ostend (photo by Cheryl Cooper)
Statue of Leopold II in Ostend (photo by Cheryl Cooper)

[1] Fortunately, in reality, there is not even a sign on Hitler’s birth house in Braunau am Inn . Instead, there is a stone with the inscription: ‘Für Frieden Freiheit und Demokratie – Nie wieder Faschismus – Millionen Toten mahnen.’ (For peace, freedom and democracy – never again fascism – million of deaths remind us).

[2] Thanks to Allan McCay for suggesting this example.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. The issue is not limited to statues. The British serial killer Fred West murdered several of his victims at his home in Cromwell Street, Gloucester. There would be an outcry if the street was renamed after Fred West, but Cromwell certainly killed more people. All over Europe there are streets named after bloodthirsty butchers, who are also national heroes. I don’t see why issues such as “the underrepresentation of Black and minority ethnic students and staff in Oxford” should get any special priority in decisions about this. It would be a form of reverse racism, to apply memorial revisionism only to those with black victims.

  2. I was disappointed to see this article published at the Conversation, and am more disappointed to see a longer version of it here at a blog calling itself “Practical ethics”.

    Where are the ethics in pouring oil on the already heated Rhodes debate by invoking Hitler and Mengele?

    I am particularly concerned by the remark “If he stays at Oriel there will be trouble”, which I had not noticed previously at the Conversation, though I see now that it is there also.
    What exactly does this mean? What trouble? And why “will”, rather than “might”?
    As noted in this article, the college has made it quite clear that the statue is staying:
    “The overwhelming message we have received has been in support of the statue remaining in place, for a variety of reasons.”

  3. Cromwell, and even Hitler and Leopold II, were not murderers in the sense that Fred West was.

    The question that fascinates me about this debate is not the fate of this or that statue, but the place that moral judgement occupies in contemporary society. It may be a subject for sociologists rather than philosophers, but it’s fascinating to see how personal judgement or opinion is supplanting moral rules, or even laws, as the standard for behaviour. “I don’t like this, therefore…” Therefore what? Is this where ethics dissolves into aesthetics, as Wittgenstein suggested?

  4. This is neither a question of aesthetics, nor of personal judgement, but of national identity. All nation-states implement a pervasive symbolic culture promoting the national identity, national unity, and a standardised national history. Michael Billig’s book Banal Nationalism considered the pervasiveness of this ideological nationalist culture, and its invisibility to most people, since they know no alternative. Statues and monuments are a well-researched part of this national symbolic culture, but only the tip of the iceberg.

    It is rare that any part of this ideological culture is challenged. The flag and statue controversies in the US, South Africa, and now the UK, are such a case. Although they may seen hugely controversial to participants, they are nothing compared to a wholesale replacement of one nationalist culture by another, a process which is almost inevitably accompanied by bloodshed. Examples are the de-Sovietisation and de-Russification of the Ukraine, which lead to secession and the present war, and the establishment of a Croatian national identity in the 1990’s. Equally, the comparison with the Ukraine and Croatia indicates that the United Kingdom still has a relatively strong national identity, despite Scottish and Welsh separatism.

    In its unwillingness to consider or question the British national identity, and its concentration on ideological ‘decolonisation’ at the expense of all other revisionism, the Oxford campaign to remove Rhodes’ statute does seem a case of reverse racism. I must judge it on the basis of their petition at, which I take to be the official statement of the campaigns views and aims. If they had something else to say, then perhaps Katrien Devolder can add some information in a reply.

    1. I agree entirely with your description of national identity as being pervasive, invisible, and rarely challenged. But this goes for many cultural constructs. Your hobbies, your accent, and the clothes you wear, are influenced by factors you are not conscious of. They’re different from the hobbies, clothes and accent of your grandparents or the people in the next county or another social class. But we don’t normally tell the Welsh to stop choir singing or the Leader of the Opposition to wear a smarter suit. When we do so, we reveal more about ourselves than about those we are criticising.

      It’s not rare to challenge this ideological culture. We do it all the time often via humour or cod sociology. Jokes about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman are no longer considered acceptable (except in Shakespeare) but criticisms of people of other classes or age groups are a staple of our daily culture, including in the “serious” media.
      The difference with the campaign against the Rhodes statue is that it’s unmediated. Instead of turning criticism of Rhodes and Imperialism into an argument, a play, or a TV documentary, it’s stated as a bare opinion. “Rhodes. Don’t Like. Go.”

      Freud described the example of a baby throwing its toy out of the pram as a key point in our intellectual development – the moment when we discover the difference between the self and the exterior world. All subsequent development is a process of learning how to mediate this consciousness of difference. The Rhodes statue affair is a regression to the infantile state – hence the excessive reactions evoked on both sides. The petition, instead of advancing the discussion, just seeks to multiply one outburst of infantile rage in order to render it more formidable.

      You might watch a documentary or read a book or listen to a sermon about Rhodes and be informed, moved, irritated or bored, but there would be a process, however minor, of cultural formation. What can the petition achieve? The statue will be there, or not. No one is any the wiser, or changed in any way.

      That’s what I was trying to get at with my worry about personal judgements replacing moral rules. It’s government by opinion poll. Culture as one long Eurovision Song Contest. The binary “thumbs up – thumbs down” choice was good enough for the Roman Arena. Is it good enough for us?

  5. Why exactly has the history of the Max Planck Society been introduced into this article? In the version published in The Conversation, a comparison with medical ethics is added, which does not seem relevant either. The Max Planck Society, pre-war the KWG, was a large organisation with separate institutes (KWI), and not primarily concerned with medicine. Conversely, Nazi medical experiments did not necessarily involve the KWG or a KWI. Many German institutions went through a denazification under the Allied occupation, not only the KWG. Effective or not, organisational denazification is not a proper analogy for a statue. Nor is a statue comparable to data obtained by unethical experiments, the analogy suggested in The Conversation.

    I see that some activists are now proposing removal (in Britain) of statues of Queen Victoria. That ought to make it clear to everybody what this is about, namely the version of national history that is officially presented to the nation. It will also make it clear why the statues are there in the first place, namely as deliberate propaganda in support of a specific vision of national history and culture. They were not dropped from a spacecraft. They had their supporters, and controversy about Queen Victoria will make it clear that they most certainly still have their supporters. ‘Defend our Queen Victoria!’ is an ideal slogan for right-wing populists in Britain, or at least in England. This is essentially a political question, and there is no neat and easy procedure to ‘resolve’ such issues, as Katrien Devolder seems to be suggesting.

    1. Hi Paul. Sometimes we can learn something from an other area, or from certain historical events – even if these were not completely similar to what is currently happening. That doesn’t seem so controversial.
      I agree that it is partly about what version of national history is presented to the nation – but I think it is not only about that. In Oxford, for example, it is mainly about the problem of underrepresentation of Black and minority ethnic students and staff.

  6. To me it seems like they should keep the statues. But with a plaque or something detailing what this person did. They got a statue for a reason, and it stayed for a reason. If a person is controversial (they always are, name one historical figure worthy of a statue who were not controversial and “problematic”) then there should be an extensive explanation of this historical figure. Why did they get a statue, what was their history, and why are they a problematic figure. If we take away every historical figure that did not have a clean story, then we will not have any examples to learn from, and we will as the saying goes, be condemned to repeat history. Evil men (they were mostly men) will only redeem themselves through being remembered and serve as a warning of what we are capable of.

    1. Hi Wermund, Yes, I actually agree with you. I think in most cases (not in the case of Hitler or Saville – for different reasons) the best thing to do is to add a plaque (+ if it’s on the property of a university for example, also a longer explanation of the historical context on a website, depending on how controversial the statue is).

  7. Hitler and Saville did not enjoy fame and adulation for extended periods after their deaths. So fr them it was really never an issue. There were no long standing statues or grants or other things in their name. Rhodes did have a legacy that caused him to be celebrated for a long time after his death. And when it comes to Hitler, we are not lacking in memorials to his atrocities… He will not be remembered as a great person 500years from now. But maybe the ancient persians thought the same of a certain macedonian who lived to be 33…

  8. The campaign to remove the Rhodes statue has a petition at, presumably its main activity outside Oxford itself. It is interesting to see that an anonymous counter-petition in support of the statue attracted more support. This comment on the counter-petition confirms the nationalist framework of such statues and memorials…

    This attack is not on Cecil John Rhodes, it is on the history of the British people. If it is to be meaningful, then every statue of Queen Victoria, and every 19th century politician and benefactor, must be removed. That should not happen. They were all patriots who believed in the British Empire, and that is why the statues were first erected to their honour.
    The British have a proud history and we should be free to celebrate it. Those who do not wish to celebrate our history should not be here.

    That is how patriots would generally respond to such revisionist campaigns: treat them as an attack on the nation, and respond with national pride in the achievements of the nation, which memorials celebrate. The petition for removal, on the other hand, is notable for its lack of criticism of nationalist iconography, and of the pervasive ideology of nationalism.

    Katrien Devolder says that the campaign is “mainly about the problem of underrepresentation of Black and minority ethnic students and staff”. That expression ‘Black and minority ethnic’ (BME) refers in Britain to non-whites, and not as you might expect to ethnic minorities in general. The petition itself talks of “gross underrepresentation of people of colour and other marginalised groups…” and the term ‘people of colour’ also means non-white. So although the campaign might make sense to a black student from Zimbabwe or South Africa, its significance for others is limited. Despite the token reference to ‘other marginalised groups” it does not seem to be concerned with them at all. That is an indication of the reverse racism which I mentioned earlier.

    There are certainly other examples of national iconography conflicts, some with a colonial background. The monument in Amsterdam to General van Heutsz, who bloodily suppressed an Islamist uprising in Aceh in the Dutch East Indies, was controversial for decades. There were two attempts to blow it up, by Dutch anti-colonialists. Ultimately the iconography was altered by removing the bust of Van Heutsz, removing his name and all associated text, and renaming it as the ‘Netherlands-Indies Monument’. That seems to me to be a better comparison then the denazification of the Max Planck Society, but it resolved nothing in the end, because it could not undo the historical bloodbath.

  9. There is a good and thoughtful article on this by David Mitchell in the Guardian, “The trouble with people who lived in the past”. Here are a few of his points:
    “…anything from history is almost certainly also racist, sexist and homophobic. ”
    “I grew up in Oxford but, weirdly, our family never went to see the statue of Cecil Rhodes.”
    “Personally I find the arguments against the statue’s removal unanswerable”
    “All I know about Rhodes is that he was a Victorian who made a fortune in colonial Africa – but he’s bound to be horrendous, isn’t he? ”
    “This nastiness might be a good reason not to erect a statue of him, but that doesn’t make it reason enough to tear one down – and, in so doing, destroy valuable evidence of his former veneration. That’s really important. ”
    “Such unwavering moral self-confidence was prevalent among the colonial Victorians, and is prevalent among the students organising “Rhodes Must Fall” today”

  10. I was once trapped at dinner at Jesus with a young Spanish academic who expressed great loathing for the College founder, Queen Elizabeth, on the basis of perceived historical injustice (piracy, heresy, unfavourable winds during Armada’s voyage, etc). I struggled to make sense of holding a grudge for 420 years. There seemed to me lots of other, more recent grudges the academic could have chosen that are just as irrelevant, but without which it is perhaps unlikely that she as an individual would exist. I didn’t ask her what she thought about various non-identity problems, but isn’t that something that needs to be considered in amongst all this? I’m surprised no one has mentioned the sorts of arguments explored by George Sher or Andrew Cohen on intergenerational duties and non-identity.

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