Walk down Broadway in New York’s Financial District and you’ll see hundreds of black granite slabs honoring every ticker parade in the city’s history. There are named winners of the parade like beloved 20th century icons Amelia Earhart and Nelson Mandela, as well as more ignominious figures, in particular Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval.
Pétain and Laval, leaders of the Vichy France Nazi collaboration, were honored in parades in the 1930s, years before they adopted policies that removed Jews from public office, seized Jewish property and deported more than 65,000 Jews to Nazi camps. And yet, memorial plaques in New York City weren’t installed until 2004. There are nearly a dozen streets in the United States named after Pétain, who was originally honored as a hero of WWI.
In 2018, the New York City Council voted against removing the Pétain and Laval plaques to avoid what they called “cultural amnesia.” Meanwhile, Canada renamed Mount Pétain in the Canadian Rockies last year, and France no longer has any memorials to either man.
Pétain and Laval are far from the only Nazi and Fascist collaborators to be honored in the United States, or abroad for that matter. In January 2021, a survey conducted by the front identified more than 1,500 statues and streets honoring Nazi collaborators around the world. In the United States alone, there are at least 37 such monuments.
There are, of course, monuments, plaques and statues to many other disreputable or disgraced figures in the United States, from Confederate generals to colonialists and slave traders. In 2020, during the George Floyd protests, these statues became a focal point as activists tore them down or worked to have them legally removed. Yet, in most cases, public art commemorating fascists – and therefore whitewashing fascist history – remains in place. And many, like the Pétain and Laval plaques, have been installed in recent decades.
Understanding why can help make sense of far-right revisionism, which has lurked beneath the surface in the United States for decades and recently exploded into public view.