faculty & experts
28 February 2022

Colonial and racist heritage in the monuments of Geneva

A study by Professors Mohamedou and Rodogno for the city of Geneva. 

Monuments, statues, streets, and squares’ names - several personalities of the past occupy Geneva’s urban space. Answering to public and political demands, the city of Geneva began to reflect upon tributes paid in its public spaces to people who have encouraged racism and colonialism in the past.  

The city of Geneva requested that professors from the Department of International History and Politics, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou and Davide Rodogno, who recently conducted a study on racism for Google, to conduct a study, titled “Temps, espaces et histoires – Monuments et héritage raciste et colonial dans l’espace public genevois: état des lieux historiques” within this framework. The results were presented on 1 March 2022 during a press conference organised by the City of Geneva. A roundtable on the subject had also been organised by the Geneva Graduate Institute in collaboration with the Festival du Film et Forum International sur les Droits Humains de Genève (FIFDH) and the Service Agenda 21 – Ville Durable of the City of Geneva, on 7 March 2022 at the Maison de la Paix. 

In which context did the City of Geneva ask you to conduct this study and what is racist heritage? 

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou : Following the momentum created by an initiative that had previously initiated a conversation around this subject, in 2020, the City of Geneva requested that we deepen this reflection on the public spaces of Geneva and the presence of places and symbols which are, in one way or another, linked to an event or a historical figure that could be connected to colonialism, slavery, or racism. The work that we conducted is an academic study with the objective of laying the foundation for the next steps of this reflection, offering, on one side, guidance on the importance and complexity of the subject and identifying, on the other side, some paths of action to intervene with appropriate policies and solutions. In this particular context of urban public space, racist and colonial heritage includes all material, symbolic representations, and denominations which, in a logic of acknowledgement or celebration, return to discussions and practices that are explicitly discriminatory. These heritage elements, with their continuous presence – whether questioned or not – participate in the denial of humanity and equity, as with colonialism and racism.  

The study reflects on the notions of public space in itself, commemoration and celebration, as well as on the question of public history and its role for society

What brings to your mind the sentence “yesterday’s glory can be tomorrow’s shame”?

Davide Rodogno : For us historians there is nothing surprising. Our study brings us to the problems of racism and its roots linked to imperialism, colonialism and slavery. Think, for example, about the events of 25 July 1943 in Italy and the fall of Benito Mussolini. There, we saw the instant and spontaneous destruction of millions of busts and statues of the Duce; the fasces that decorated the buildings were taken down, and the slogans on the walls erased. Another example: during the days after the Carnation Revolution, the Portuguese decided with great sharpness to cover with a dark drape and tie with ropes several statues of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, an example of ‘cancelling’ that is not isolated. We could continue by talking about the statues of Vladimir Lénin and Joseph Stalin in 1989. Glory and shame are essential ingredients of political life and discourse. And if we insist on the civic, cultural, academic, and intellectual importance of antiracism, it is also because we notice around us many worrying signs of the rehabilitation of the glory of the colonial period, as if "yesterday’s glory can be tomorrow’s shame" but then, sadly in this case, it can become the day-after-tomorrow’s glory. 

How did you proceed to realise this vast census and reflecting work, and how did your position as professors in an international institute like ours prove useful? 

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou : With the assistance of Aline Zuber and Frank Afari, we have built a study divided in three parts with the objective of informing, today and always, about those elements which are not necessarily known, and inviting a closer and constructive reflection on them. The first part of the study approaches the nature of the problem and its contemporary context, as well as the specificity of the Swiss and Genevois case. The second part examines a certain number of places in Geneva that raise or might raise some questions linked to racism, colonialism or slavery. The third part identifies a series of feasible paths to deal with the issue of such a heritage, offering a selection of solutions. A long bibliography allows for the continuation of this work going deeper into the questions and cases already approached. Yes, this kind of work is, by its nature, a work for the historians who can understand its historical depth and give it a contemporary meaning since it needs, according to us, an apolitical look precisely to facilitate a discussion around civic policies. 

Switzerland is one of the European countries less connected to colonialism. Are there exceptions concerning Switzerland in this domain? 

Davide Rodogno : The exceptionality is kept, cultivated and protected because our country loves its uniqueness and makes it its own brand.  This exceptionality is based on the - right - assessment that Switzerland is not an empire, nor has colonies in the formal meaning of the term, meaning it does not own any territorial title in Europe or on any other continent. But to say that Switzerland (the Swiss government) and the Swiss are not associated with colonialism would be simply false. Missionaries, mercenaries, adventurers, business men, bankers, and humanitarians were connected to colonialism, slavery, and imperialism: the opposite would have been astonishing. And in the moment of decolonisation, Switzerland and its banks became a secure place for the possessions of ex-colonies’ Statesmen and dictators. 

What is true for Geneva is true at the international level, where the problem of racism should not be the prerogative of a single organisation but the concern of all. 

Which places and symbols in Geneva interested you the most in the framework of the census you conducted? 

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou : By design, we put this mapping in chiasmus and relation with the other analytical issues, all as important as the places and monuments themselves. These missionaries, mercenaries, adventurers, business men, bankers, and other humanitarians appear on the margins of the pages of our study which, thus, needs to be read attentively. The study reflects on the notions of public space in itself, commemoration and celebration, as well as on the question of public history and its role for society. Moreover, to simply remain attached to a listing of public places like Boulevard Carl-Vogt, rue du Village Suisse, or Place Wilson, to mention some, is to miss the entire picture that needs to be reflective on the absence of a celebration of diversity in the same public spaces. It is not just a matter of correcting but also of building anew. The bias of cancelling is deceitful. 

What actions should be taken in the future on a local, Geneva level, as well as international level? 

Davide Rodogno : The actions are multiple and should happen simultaneously and on a large scale. Education, from the primary levels until the master and doctoral levels, including ours, is for us essential, as much as public debate. Respectful and inclusive dialogue in countries like Switzerland, which define themselves as democratic, must lead to a decision from the citizens regarding public spaces. The multiplication of grassroot initiatives emerging from civil society should be supported and facilitated by public authorities. We should not  delude ourselves that change will happen rapidly, and it is not speed that will measure the success of these remedies. The long and difficult debates and dialogues facing a cultural or behavioural change will forcibly take a long time. What is true for Geneva is also true at the international level, where the problem of racism should not be the prerogative of a single organisation or United Nations agencies but the concern of intergovernmental agencies, NGOs, diplomats, groups of experts, and of us all. 

Professor Mohamedou and Rodogno's interview during the midday edition of the RTS News on 1 March. 

Histoire et politique internationales

Temps, espaces et histoires