A commission appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to advise City Hall on what to do with historical monuments that raise complicated moral questions has recommended leaving in place a Lower Manhattan plaque that marks a parade honoring a figure later judged by history to be a villain, rather than protagonist. The same panel chose not to consider two other historical actors with ambiguous records.
All three are sidewalk markers along Broadway’s “Canyon of Heroes,” the route taken by honorees of ticker tape parades. These plaques were set into the sidewalk in 2003 and 2004, as part of a project recalling more than 200 such parades, from 1886 through the present.
The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers was created earlier this year, in the wake of violent protests in other American cities surrounding the question of whether monuments perceived as glorifying the Confederacy and the cause of slavery during the Civil War should be removed from places of honor.
In Lower Manhattan, the Commission focused on the Canyon of Heroes sidewalk marker recalling the October, 1931 ticker tape parade honoring Henri Philippe Petain, a French general whose service in World War One earned him the admiring nickname, “the Lion of Verdun.” Petain’s record in the Second World War, however, was considerably darker. After the fall of France, he was appointed by the Nazi occupation authorities as the chief of a new French government, which functioned as a German puppet. In this capacity, he recruited French troops to fight alongside the Nazis, and oversaw the deportation of more than 100,000 French Jews to their deaths in German concentrations camps. For such acts of collaboration, Petain was tried for treason after the war had ended, and sentenced to death — although this was commuted to life imprisonment.
Mayor de Blasio focused on the Petain plaque earlier this year, when he announced the formation of the Mayoral Advisory Commission, saying, that the “commemoration for Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain in the Canyon of Heroes will be one of the first we remove.”
In the event, the Commission recommended instead that Petain’s marker remain in place. Its report, issued last week, says that the panel, “noted two critical points when reviewing the available information: first, the Petain marker is one part of a project designed as a whole to acknowledge the history of parades along Broadway; and second, the project accurately records a chronology of events in place. The Commission’s discussions first considered historical accuracy and then the nature of the memorialization. The Commission believes that if a marker is accurate, and not celebratory of egregious values or actions, it should not be removed.”
In this context, the Petain marker was deemed to be a chronological and documentary artifact, rather than one that was lauded its subject. The report also raised the questions of whether, the ‘Canyon of Heroes’ [is] a set of markers or a monument in itself? Is a marker placed in the sidewalk perceived as honorific?” Additionally, a majority of the Commission’s members believed that the series of sidewalk markers along Broadway should either be left in place, in its entirety, or else removed completely.
For this reason, the Commission came up with two recommendations about the Petain plaque, and the entire series markers along the Canyon of Heroes. First, “a majority of Commission members advocate to keep all markers in place and add context in order to reframe this list as a teachable moment (e.g., wayfinding, on-site signage, and historical information about the people for whom parades were held).” And second, the panel suggests removing, “references to the name ‘Canyon of Heroes’ from Lower Broadway, as it mischaracterizes the installation as a celebration of heroic figures who, in some cases, do not reflect contemporary values of New York City.”
The same recommendations might apply to a pair of other figures memorialized in the Canyon of Heroes sidewalk plaques, whose records the Commission did not consider. The first is Pierre Laval, who, as premier of France, was honored with a ticker tape parade along Broadway in October, 1931, just four days prior of Petain’s. But a decade later, Laval was literally Petain’s partner in crime. When the Nazi’s installed the aging general as chief of state in their French client government, they chose a younger politician, Laval, as the head of government. Like Petain, Laval was tried for treason after the war, and sentenced to death. Unlike Petain, his sentence was not commuted, and Laval was executed in 1946. What (if anything) to do about Laval’s street marker on Broadway may have been overlooked by the Commission because he is even less familiar to a modern American audience than Petain. But it would appear likely that whatever informational supplements are added to Petain’s marker would also be appropriate for Laval’s.
A third case is far better known than either Petain’s or Laval’s, but also far more fraught with ambiguity. Aviator Charles Lindbergh was honored with a ticker tape parade in June, 1927, in recognition of his history-making solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean a few years earlier. The event drew an enraptured crowd of almost four million people. A decade later, however, Lindbergh became a leading advocate for leaving Western Europe to its fate at the hands of the Nazis. In 1938, he accepted a medal, the Service Cross of the German Eagle, from Hermann Goering, who presented it on behalf of Adolf Hitler. Lindbergh also made a series of speeches as the war engulfed Europe, and as American involvement drew nearer, invoking vile anti-Semitic tropes. A few weeks before Pearl Harbor, he said of American Jews, “their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our Government.”
Reconciling Lindbergh’s enormous achievement as a pilot with his appalling stance on issues that, with benefit of hindsight, rank among the clearest moral questions of the last century, appears likely to require more than a new plaque to provide historical background — assuming it is attempted at all. But if H.G. Wells was right that, “history is a race between education and catastrophe,” perhaps erring on the side of trying to illuminate some of our past’s shadowy corners will prove more useful (albeit more difficult) than choosing self-inflicted amnesia.