The City as a Palimpsest and Crucible of National Identity

By Alexander C. Diener, University of Kansas, and Joshua Hagen, Northern State University

The tendency of successive regimes to rework commemorative landscapes speaks to the intrinsic and intricate linkages between place, memory, and identity. We affix memories and identities to urban space and place as a means of giving tangible and lasting form to intangible and transient moments. Yet even massive landmarks of granite and bronze are subject to shifting public sentiment as groups compete for power through the design of urban iconography. Although unfolding in quite different contexts, the impulse to rework public space to suit new political narratives finds historical precedents ranging from revolutionaries tearing religious statues from Catholic cathedrals during the French Revolution to ongoing efforts to purge communist-era landmarks from post-socialist cities.

Toul France Gothic Cathedral Hagen 2012

Gothic cathedral with missing statuary, Toul, France. Photo by Joshua Hagen, 2012.

In fact, a general rule of thumb seems to be that more dramatic political and cultural shifts result in more dramatic changes to urban iconography. At times, these shifts have entailed the wholesale destruction of the monument. In other cases, public monuments were merely recycled through the addition of new inscriptions, statuary, or other means. Every case is unique, reflecting malleable constellations of socio-economic power, jostling between local, state, and national jurisdictions and interests, and the power of place to reify or undermine narratives of the past, present, and future. That caveat aside, four main strategies are evident for dealing with residual landscapes of memory: remain, remove, relocate, re-orientate.

The strategy of remain leaves the monument or other structure in place, literally and figuratively. This can be seen in the dozens of statues of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin that remain standing in Russia and numerous other counties around the world. The second strategy is remove. For example, the New Orleans city council removed the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, which stood in the middle of a traffic roundabout since 1884, from its perch in 2017. In this case, Lee literally vanished from public view. The third option is relocate. The saga of the Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn, Estonia, is highly illustrative. The Bronze Soldier occupied a prominent location to commemorate the sacrifices of the Soviet Red Army in liberating Estonia. Yet after independence, many Estonians regarded Soviet liberation as a precursor to subsequent occupation and subjugation. The Estonian government eventually decided to relocate the Bronze Soldier to a less central location, much to the consternation of ethnic Russians in Estonia and in Russia. Basically, this decision was a compromise between the “remain” and the “remove” strategies.


A fourth strategy is re-orientate, which leaves the monument in place but changes the surrounding spatial context to convey a different message. Sükhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar has been the symbolic stage of Mongolian political life for decades. In 1925, the square was named after Damdin Sükhbaatar, a communist-era hero and founder of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). The square was later adorned with a statute of him astride a horse. The square hosted military parades during the communist era but was also the center of the 1990 democratic revolution. In 2013, the square was subsequently renamed Chinggis Square, in honor of the founder of the Mongol Empire. The Sükhbaatar statue remained in place, but the new government constructed an administrative and commercial district around the square that recast that public space to reflect a new Mongolia that was capitalist, globalized, and democratic.


Sükhbaatar statue, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo by Kristopher White.

Sükhbaatar’s descendants strongly opposed the renaming and took the issue to court in 2014. The MPP also opposed the renaming. The matter seemed to subside until the MPP return in power and the Sükhbaatar family prevailed in court. As a result, the space reverted to Sükhbaatar Square in 2016. A Sükhbaatar family member who filed the court case remarked on Facebook, “I guess it’s become a tradition to change the names of streets and squares when a new political party rises to power.”

The Berlin Wall is a monument that unintentionally blends all four strategies. The vast majority of the Berlin Wall was removed, crushed, and used for landfill at construction sites soon after 1989. A minority of other sections remained in place or were relocated, both within Berlin and to many other cities. Yet nearly all cases of remain or relocate also re-orientated the wall slabs in some fashion. The surviving remnants of the Berlin Wall have different meanings now than they did in the 1960s.

Berlin Wall Hagen 2016

Berlin Wall. Photo by Joshua Hagen, 2016.

At present, the strategy of remove seems to have gained ascendency around the world. There have been passionate calls to remove statuary honoring Mahatma Gandhi stretching from Canada to Ghana to South Africa. Traditionally celebrated for advocacy of non-violence, critics have increasingly directed attention to Gandhi’s use of racist slurs directed at black Africans. Others have called for the removal of statues to Christopher Columbus, Cecil Rhodes, and several others for their associations with colonialism, racism, and oppression. The imperative favoring the strategy of remove seems especially intense in the United States, at least partially attributable to the election of President Donald Trump.

The residual landscapes of memory of the Confederacy, for example, have proven especially contentious. The Civil War constituted a watershed moment in American history, which preserved the Union and abolished slavery, but the subsequent imposition of Jim Crow segregation and continuing racial violence in the following decades undermined proclamations of emancipation and full civil rights. Beyond the legal frameworks undergirding this system of racial segregation, the reassertion of white supremacy in the former Confederate states also manifested in urban iconography, most notably in a spate of memorials, monuments, and place names commemorating the Confederate cause constructed from the late 1880s through the 1960s, especially from 1900 to 1920.

By the start of the twenty-first century, cities across the American South sported an array of prominent statues, obelisks, and other markers celebrating figures ranging from prominent generals like Robert E. Lee to the unknown common soldier. The early twentieth century coincided with the passing of the Civil War generation, but the main impetus for this surge in Confederate commemorations was to inscribe the narrative of the “lost cause” into public space. The myth of the lost cause positioned the Confederacy as a noble, but futile, effort to defend a Southern way of life, states’ rights, and white supremacy, while simultaneously minimizing the role of slavery.

These Confederate places of memory seemingly receded into the banality of everyday life until becoming flashpoints for national controversy in the early twenty-first century. Citing their hurtful associations with discrimination, intimidation, slavery, and violence, some have called for Confederate monuments to be toppled or at least moved to less prominent locations. Others have countered that the Confederacy remains an important part of American history in general and integral to Southern heritage more specifically. Still others have acknowledged the ugly origins of the Confederate memorials but maintained that it is better to engage that dark history in place rather than trying to expunge the urban landscape of all potentially objectionable landmarks. These debates have frequently captured global media attention and unfortunately occasionally spilled over into violence, as in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis protesting the removal of a Confederate statue instigated brawls that killed one counter-protestor.

Taken together, these stories highlight the role of the city to serve as a palimpsest of identity. Geographers use the term palimpsest to refer to an urban landscape that is written over by successive generations, but earlier writings are never completely erased. Those earlier inscriptions of space, place, and identity linger; they remain present in a variety of material and immaterial, visible and palpable modalities. These stories also highlight how the city serves as a crucible that concentrates and focuses notions of memory, collective identity, and place attachment. Given the peculiarities of place and shifting social relations, there are no “correct” answers to these controversies. The ultimate resolutions are subjective and vary in relation to social power, political expediency, and economic considerations.

Returning to the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, Silent Sam, a statue commemorating a common Confederate soldier, had occupied a prominent location on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1913. The statue was the target of repeated protests and vandalism over the years agitating for its removal. In response to public protests against Confederate monuments, a number of states, including North Carolina, recently passed laws prohibiting the removal of public monuments. Protestors took matters into their own hands and toppled Silent Sam in August 2018. Today’s headlines read much like yesterday’s news.

Alexander C. Diener is an associate professor of geography at the University of Kansas. He is a political and social geographer with interests in geopolitics, borders, identity, mobility, and urban landscape change with an area studies focus on Central Eurasia and Northeast Asia. He has authored or co-authored three books and co-edited three more.

Joshua Hagen is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern State University. He has published widely on issues related to the politics of architecture and urban design, historic preservation and places of memory, and nationalism and geopolitics, among other topics.

Most recently, Diener and Hagen co-edited the volume The City as Power: Urban Space, Place, and National Identity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

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