Book Review: Fallen Idols - Alex von Tunzelmann

Book cover showing the disembodied head of Lenin's statue lying on its side."History is not erased when statues are pulled down. It is made."

Some people celebrated when Saddam's statue was toppled in Iraq. Yet those same voices condemn the felling of Coulson, Rhodes, and a dozen other statues. Why?

Alex von Tunzelmann has a knack for getting to the heart of history in an accessible manner. There isn't a hefty amount of ponderous academic theory to wade through - just well researched stories mixed with contemporary accounts.

Statues don't have human rights. But our primitive brains sometimes seem to confuse the icon for the individual. When we have a parasocial relationship with a historical figure, it can be distressing to see their "body" being attacked and beaten by a mob. But the statues are of men, not gods. They weren't infallible in life and deserve to fairly assessed in death. A statue is the physical manifestation of propaganda - they are adverts for a cause. Pulling down a statue is a direct response to unwanted and offensive advertising.

The only weakness is that there are no photographs or etchings of the statues in question. The descriptions are vivid, but there's no substitute for seeing the article in question.

Towards the end of the book, she mentions the Empty Library in Berlin. It is a memorial to burned books. And this is where my thinking gets confused. Burning an individual book does not destroy history, nor does it harm a cause, or directly threaten an individual. Yet I have and instinctive liberal disgust at the sight of a book burning. I'd say I'm no less repulsed by it that a reactionary is at seeing a statue being pulled down.

Could someone write a similar set of essays defending book burning? Are there arguments to be made that some books are a monument to evil and their presence in libraries is a symbol of oppression? Fallen Idols makes a convincing case that merely putting a plaque on the side of a statue to explain historic context is insufficient - is the same true for the preface of dangerous book?

Fallen Idols is an excellent and well-told set of history stories. Highly recommended.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Fallen Idols - Alex von Tunzelmann”

  1. jerojasor says:

    Thanks for the review. Why are there no stars on this post, though?

  2. Erik says:

    When I visited Budapest I also visited Memento Park, which is located outside of the city. It has a large collection of statues from the communist era.

    In that case you get a lot more info than a simple plaque explaining the context and history, while also isolating them in one location instead of keeping them all over the city.

    I think that if you were to leave them in their original spot in the city, even with a plaque, it still represents some kind of endorsement of the people or thoughts it represents.


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