Values made visible: KU Leuven places bust of Leopold II in storage

BY LUC SELS. Recent events in the United States have revived the demand to remove statues of former Belgian King Leopold II from public places. A petition addressed to the City of Leuven and KU Leuven (in Dutch) states: “Leopold II’s reign was one of terror, characterised by forced labour and repression.”

Written by Luc Sels, Rector of KU Leuven. He tweets via @LucSels.
Rector Luc Sels | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

Few people will dismiss this conclusion, although some attempt to put it into perspective by adding that the Belgian colonisation of Congo has also yielded ‘a lot of good’. Passons. Even back then, the abuses were already known and condemned. Those in power at the time – not just the King, but all beneficiaries of the exploitation – were aware of the sins they were committing, and they were never seriously called to account. It is remarkable that the short biography of Leopold II on the official website of our royal family only mentions the International Commission of Inquiry set up by the King himself, “which recognised the merits of the royal action in Congo while pointing out abuses and shortcomings.” In other words: the merits can be attributed to the King, but whether or not he bears responsibility for the abuses remains an open-ended question. These abuses appear to have simply ‘existed’.

Of course, the theme goes beyond the statues of Leopold II. Many buildings and monuments in all countries and cultures were created in times when different standards held true. In Flemish newspaper De Morgen, Jonathan Holslag wrote the following (in Dutch) on the matter: “Instead of demolishing monuments, we would benefit more from building global historical awareness.”

The question is whether this statement accurately reflects the difference between the two approaches. Nobody will deny that we have to cultivate historical awareness. Holslag provides a list of striking historical monuments, including the pyramids of Giza, the Mayan temples, the Borobodur Temple in Indonesia, the Taj Mahal, the Mutapa fortresses in Zimbabwe, the Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat. He makes it abundantly clear that it is impossible to ‘remove’ all artefacts of which the genesis is problematic to current standards.

However: does this also apply to the many hundreds of busts or statues? According to the Van Dale dictionary, a statue is “erected in honour of someone”. This definition is fairly unambiguous: a statue is a tribute. Perhaps the historical relevance of such an artefact lies precisely in the fact that a community (or its representatives) once felt that they should honour the person in question. But is that enough reason for a statue to become a historical monument that deserves our protection? Should we continue to pay tribute to someone today for that reason only? To illustrate the historical fact of the tribute itself, it suffices to preserve a few statues (e.g. the statue on Troonplein in Brussels) and provide the necessary clarification sine ira et studio.

Like myself, many have noted that Leopold II is not the kind of public figure that we, as the KU Leuven community, want to put on a pedestal.

Last year, in response to the discussions about the large number of monuments that still allude to the Confederate States of America or to slavery, American philosopher Susan Neiman, who lives in Berlin, wrote in The Atlantic: “For monuments are neither just about heritage or just about hate. They are values made visible. That’s why we build memorials to some parts of history and ignore others. They embody the ideas we choose to lift up, in the hopes of reminding ourselves and our children that those ideas have been embodied by brave men and women.”

She is right to point out that Germany has no Nazi memorials. Germans (even those on the extreme right) do not consider this to be a rewriting of history. Nazism, its concrete manifestations, however criminal they may be, as well as the broader history of its origins, were and still are thoroughly studied and taught. There is no room for tributes. When it comes to, for instance, the reconstruction of Berlin (including the Reichstag dome), Neiman notes: “No one, least of all a German, would claim that the renaming and rebuilding of public spaces eradicated the roots of racism. The city was not rebuilt to reflect what is, but what ought to be. Berlin’s public space represents conscious decisions about what values the reunited republic should commit itself to holding.”

A university must not limit itself to symbolic measures, however important they may be.

What does this mean for the bust of Leopold II in our monumental University Library? The answer is simple: we’re going to remove it (the bust was removed shortly after the publication of this blog – ed.). Because, in line with my argument here, I have to conclude that the bust has no particular historical or artistic value. It does not shed light on or illustrate historical facts. At the moment, it does not come with any context at all. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that it has the usual function of a bust: honouring a historical figure. Like myself, many have noted that Leopold II, despite his historical relevance to our country, is not the kind of public figure that we, as the KU Leuven community, want to put on a pedestal.

Does this conclude the matter? No, because a university must not limit itself to symbolic measures, however important they may be. And certainly not to issue-of-the-day politics. Haste makes waste, and it goes against the core of our academic mission. For KU Leuven, this mission is about research and education at the service of society – and its most vulnerable members in particular – about critical reflection and careful ethical consideration, about clarification based on thorough research. Precise clarification, that is what we need to aim for.

The numerous measures included in our diversity policy are our gateway to continue building a truly inclusive university.

A bust of Leopold II without clarification as to the history it represents, including the abuses that are part of it, does not belong in a university. That same bust, with a critical clarification and a reminder of the bloodshed in the colonial past of this king and country, might have a place in that same university. Because looking at the past is not enough. The numerous measures included in our diversity policy are our gateway to continue building a truly inclusive university.

So yes, the bust as a tribute will be removed and stored in our depot. Together with our committee for academic heritage, our historians, and other relevant experts, we will thoroughly reflect on how we can turn this tribute that we can no longer condone into a critical and historical interpretation that reflects these dark times. And then we will see whether or not the bust can come out of storage. If that happens, it will be in the context of a meaningful event to support “ideas we choose to lift up”.