Book - Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History

Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, Tony Cross read Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann...

This is the first of the six books on the Wolfson History Prize shortlist*. I'm planning to read all of them before the winner is announced [on 22nd June - Ed]. Hopefully.

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann is - if I look at the other titles on the list - probably the book most aimed at the general reader as opposed to the historian. Although I might reconsider that when I’ve read the rest of the list. At this point I’m just going by titles.

It is also the book that ties itself most obviously to contemporary politics. The impact of the "culture wars" is the background to this book and how that has impacted on how we talk about and study history. As von Tunzelmann says in her introduction, "This is a book about how we make history."**

The book looks at the removal of the statues of twelve people, starting with that of the statue of George III in New York by American revolutionaries in 1776 and finishing with the fall of a statue of George Washington in Oregon in 2020. Each statue has its creation and fall properly contextualised. And in the case of Leopold II of Belgium, we get to understand why some of the statues haven't been removed. Yet.

Two of von Tunzelmann's examples - the statue of George V in Delhi and the various 'imposing erections' of Rafael Trujillo's Dominican Republican dictatorship - are drawn from areas she has written about in other places books: Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007) and Red Heat. Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean (2011). But there's also talk of Stalin, Lenin, the Duke of Cumberland, Saddam Hussein, Cecil Rhodes, Robert E Lee, and Edward Colston.

This breadth of examples offers up different reasons for their fall and different results, but it allows von Tunzelmann to challenge the arguments presented by those who would use the fall of statues to defend a status quo. She shows how statues represent a 'great man' mythologised version of history that - and forgive the pun - can't be set in stone because how we see ourselves and our place in the world changes. History is a dynamic subject. It is an ongoing debate between what we think we know, what we'd like to think of ourselves and 'what really happened' to slightly misquote Leopold von Ranke.

The examples are all stories interestingly told. Von Tunzelmann writes clearly and well. You can tell she’s spent time writing journalism. She knows how to tell a story without getting carried away by it. The best reason for reading this book though is as a defence of history as a subject and an explanation of how it works:

"Any written history, even the blandest series of historical documents, can only ever be a map, not the actual territory of history, which vanishes as soon as it has happened. History is gone. What we have is the memory of history, and that is always contested. " (p. 8)

It would make a good introductory book for teaching history at schools or as introductory parts of university courses. When I did my history degree the first part of our course was 'What is History?' and they used historical 'mysteries' to introduce us to the methodologies and practices of historical study. We looked at things like 'Was there a Robin Hood?', 'Who Killed JFK?', 'What Happened to the Romanovs' etc. It gave you an insight into the subject that opened it up in a fun and intelligent way. That's what von Tunzelmann's book does. It tells the stories of twelve statues to show us what history is, which I can only applaud.

* the Wolfson History Prize recognises and celebrates books which combine excellence in research with readability. This year, the 50th anniversary, the shortlist is as follows:

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Image - Amazon

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