A healthy society does not destroy its monuments

Under the Maoist regimes in China and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, some of the worst atrocities after the Nazis were carried out. Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ against the ‘four olds’ led to the destruction of books and artworks. Later, there were showtrials and the politically incorrect were battered by the mob. In the wreckage of Cambodia, Pol Pot led a terrifying war on alleged capitalist-roaders and even intellectuals – who could be handily identified by the fact they wore glasses – that led to millions being killed. Pol Pot declared a ‘year zero’ – that all civilisation before the Khmer Rouge took power would be cancelled. Tragically, the wholesale wiping out of Cambodian culture was only a prelude to the extermination of much of its population. The sentiment of wiping out the wrong history was repeated in the war that al-Qaeda-inspired regimes in Afghanistan and Mali conducted against books and statues that did not match their own Islamist views.

In Soviet Russia, when the communist-allied artists of the Proletkult organisation argued that all Tsarist culture should be expunged, the Bolshevik leader Lenin took them to task for ‘rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch’. Instead, he said, they should assimilate and re-work ‘everything of value in the more than 2,000 years of the development of human thought and culture’. Sadly, Lenin’s wise advice was lost on the Stalinist regimes that followed, during which the policy oscillated between futurist iconoclasm and maudlin Russian sentimentality. History got its revenge in eastern Europe when most of the ubiquitous Lenin and Marx statues came down in the 1990s.