Memorials of revolution

In Museums on December 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm

This year I went on holiday to Romania (May) and Portugal (December). They are on the opposite sides of Europe, but have much in common. They both have long a proud histories; they have both faced economic hardship in recent years and, strangely, although their languages are completely different, to a non-native speaker they sound rather similar.

Both countries have also had revolutions in recent years, both of which involved the removal of modern dictators.

Romania’s removal from power of Nicolae Ceausescu, his speedy trial, and his assassination in the forest on Christmas Day 1989, was seen as a turning point for the country and for other countries in the region which had for decades been under Soviet influence. Romania joined the EU recently and from 2014 its citizens will be able to move freely in the UK – it’s amazing to think how quickly the moment of revolution managed to affect the lives of millions there. Yet they are keen to move on from their past and embrace a modern, European way of life (much like some in nearby Ukraine, who are a few steps behind them – and possibly a tourism destination for me next year.)

On the other side of Europe, fifteen years earlier, Portuguese armed forces removed Marcello Caetano from power in an almost bloodless coup. He was sent into exile in south America, never to be heard from again, while at home Portugal formed a new constitution and held legal elections for the first time in decades. General Spinola was seen as a hero for restoring democracy to Portugal and giving it the tools it needed to transform itself into a modern country. A few years later and Portugal is a key player in the EU – Jose Manuel Barosso is President of the European Commission and Portuguese footballers are famous around the globe.

As a tourist, and someone interested in museums, memory and material culture, I was interested to see how these two countries chose to remember the moment of revolution. Each of them have a building and a memorial associated with a specific time and place.

damselinredressIn Bucharest the striking ‘Memorial to the Victims’ sits in front of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party – the balcony from which Ceausescu gave his final speech and a place known as the epicentre of his megalomania. It’s a gaudy, yet poignant, reminder of the suffering of the Romanian people under his rule.

Meanwhile in Lisbon the building in which Caetano was arrested and removed from power – a military barracks where he was taking refuge – is marked by a simple, round stone in the floor, commemorating the efforts of those who overthrew him. Nothing fancy or showy – just a stone.


The Romanians I spoke with told me they want to move on emotionally from that period of history. Yet they maintain a memorial in a prominent spot, continually reminding them of their painful past. While the Portuguese, who are intensely proud of the freedoms they now enjoy, memorialise their moment of revolution with a simple plaque.

But history is rarely straightforward, and memorialisation even less so.

Lisbon image: thanks, with CCL, to Joe Mabel on flickr.


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