Returning disputed war monuments

TransConflict is pleased to present an article, entitled ‘Returning disputed war monuments – can heritage be reinterpreted for new political agendas?’, which explores how the much-disputed Isted Lion – which Denmark recently returned to Flensburg, Germany – no longer recalls a famous Danish military victory, but is instead presented as a symbolic expression of trust between the two countries.

By Dr. Marie Louise Stig Sørensen for the EU-funded CRIC (Cultural Heritage and the Re-construction of Identities after Conflict) research project

Denmark has just handed back the much travelled and much disputed Isted Lion to Germany.

After an absence of nearly 150 years this monumental creature has been placed in its original location in Flensburg among the graves of the soldiers fallen in the war that it memorializes; but its meaning has changed.

To serve a new Europe its original purpose of recalling a famous Danish military victory has been discarded and its return, despite local concerns, has been presented as a symbolic expression of trust between the two countries.

But why is this of interest? Is it not just a regional matter, yet another example of cultural objects gradually being repatriated to their original owners?

This case is not so simple. Indeed, it is relevant to us all because it so graphically shows how complex repatriation can be, provoking questions about whether such policies can go too far. At the same time, this repatriation is also a revealing example of how contemporary cultural policies may attempt to use heritage in the construction of new meanings and in support of new political agendas.

The implications of this case therefore deserve further consideration. How for example will such changes to the meaning of monuments affect the historical memory that they represent? It also raises questions about whether such monuments should be returned even if they are not wanted, and whether such gestures can aid reconciliation efforts and be used as a means of overcoming painful pasts.

So what is the Isted Lion and why is this such a complex yet useful case for consideration?  Firstly, it is an example of restoration where the concept of owner and place collide. The owner of the statue according to normal repatriation rules would probably be Denmark, but the nationality of its original site has changed. When the monument was first erected the location was in Denmark, but since 1864 it has been in Germany.

To complicate the matter even further, the monument was erected to mark a victory over the local population, whose insurgency against the Danish state in 1848-50 was the cause of the first Schleswig war. The Isted Lion was commissioned by Denmark to be placed in the Flensburg churchyard as part of a large burial mound constructed over graves containing the Danish fallen. It was thus both a cenotaph and a monumental symbol of Danish triumph.

For Schleswig-Holstein the statue was a provocation. After the area was annexed into Greater Germany in 1864 the Lion was taken down by local residents and it was later sent to Berlin. Here the Lion moved between different sites with its return debated at various times.

However, at no point was it wanted by the people of Flensburg, who continued to see it as a symbol of Danish ambitions. To them it remained an unwanted and provocative memorial.

In 1945 the Lion was again treated as a war trophy and was returned to Denmark, as the rightful owner. Upon receiving it on behalf of the nation, the King declared that it would remain in Denmark until Flensburg (as the rightful place) wanted it back.

A majority of the Flensburg City Council recently decided to ask for the return of the Lion as a symbol of how the historical conflicts in the region have now been fully overcome.  Denmark agreed to this in the name of friendship with Germany and in rejection of nationalism.

Amongst the population in the border region, the decision has been received in different ways. There is considerable consternation amongst many (both Danish and German), who see this as a reminder of Danish imperialism rather than a means of reconciliation, or who reject it as an uncalled for opening of old wounds. Others see it as a demonstration of how we can put the past behind us or give it new meanings. The changed inscription on the Lion shows that the intention is to change its meaning as the original text, which referred to the fighting and the land, has been replaced with one that states: “Re-erected in 2011 as proof of the friendship and trust between Danes and Germans.”

It is widely accepted that restoring monuments to their original sites is often a desired outcome. Repatriation of cultural property is generally seen as an important and appropriate act of reconciliation and mutual respect. But should we also ask whether war memorials really can be reinterpreted and successfully returned to a place where their original messages are not only remembered but also still unwelcome? Can our hopes for the future be reconciled with the aggressions of the past in this way?

Over the last four years the European CRIC research project has been investigating the reconstruction of cultural heritage in communities recovering from war – both in a historical perspective and after recent conflicts. Our fieldwork shows that no matter what the intentions are for rebuilding heritage, the outcomes are by no means certain or always beneficial. The CRIC research found that memories linger and can be vulnerable to manipulation. It also, however, demonstrates that the meanings of monuments are dynamic, open for negotiation and change.

On this basis, I suggest that what is worth considering with regard to the Isted Lion is that the local population has been asked to accept a very substantial change in the meaning of the monument. It will therefore be very interesting to learn whether this is possible, and whether hurtful memories and difficult heritage can be given new meanings and new roles through such simple measures as this case proposes.

Dr. Marie Louise Stig Sørensen is the director of the European CRIC research project and a University Reader in Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

The CRIC research project, which is investigating the impact of reconstruction of cultural heritage after conflict, has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme [FP7/2007-2013] under grant agreement n°  217411.

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