Stalin’s Bust at the D-Day Memorial

According to the New York Daily News and other news sources, the National D-Day Memorial has added a bust of Stalin to its line-up of allied leaders. This has understandably caused a great deal of controversy. The defense is most elaborately discussed here.

Here’s my thinking on the matter: Sculptures at memorials have two different functions — one is to illustrate history, and the other is to honor the subject. In the absence of any specific indication to the contrary, I suspect that people understand a bust at a memorial, especially one placed alongside that of honored leaders (Roosevelt and Churchill), as fulfilling both functions. And this is true even if the sculpture tries to “embody the terror he instilled”; it’s always hard to convey condemnation of the subject in the sculpture itself, especially given the backdrop assumption of honor that I mentioned. And if the photo in the Daily News article represents the bust (I’m not sure whether it does), I don’t see much embodiment of terror there.

If that’s just how it’s displayed, that strikes me as very bad, because for obvious reasons Stalin does not deserve honor. He was a monster, not just by the standards of our time, but by the standards of his. The Soviet Union’s tenacity in fighting the Nazis — after Stalin had earlier helped the Nazis, both by allying himself with them and by earlier weakening the Soviet military with the purges — was indubitably critical in winning the war. Stalin might well have been important in ultimately contributing to that tenacity. But that important success doesn’t undo his horrific atrocities.

At the same time, nothing says that the bust inevitably honors the subject. There are such things as captions, which could be placed prominently on the sculpture, and the captions can easily put things in proper perspective. An explanation of Stalin’s crimes, and the aid that Stalin either deliberately or inadvertently gave Hitler, coupled with an explanation of the immense significance of the Soviet Union’s contribution to winning the War, and whatever credit historians say Stalin deserves for that, would sufficiently make clear that Stalin is not the moral peer of his neighbors Roosevelt and Churchill. (Of course, Soviet troops weren’t present at D-Day, but D-Day would have been at least very different, and likely impossible, if the Soviets hadn’t successfully engaged much of the Nazi army on the Eastern Front.)

It’s not clear to me whether such a caption is present. If it is not, then the memorial organizers should be severely faulted, for placing in a position of conventional honor someone who deserves hatred and contempt. But the solution would be to simply add the caption, I think, and not to remove the bust.

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