Stroll down Broadway in New York City’s Financial District and you’ll see hundreds of black granite plaques honoring every ticker tape parade in city history. Named there are parade honorees like beloved 20th century icons Amelia Earhart and Nelson Mandela, along with some more ignominious figures, particularly Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval.
Pétain and Laval, leaders of the Nazi collaborationist Vichy France, were honored during parades in the 1930s, years before they enacted policies that removed Jews from civil service, seized Jewish property, and deported more than 65,000 Jews to Nazi camps. And yet, the commemorative plaques in New York were not installed until 2004. There are nearly a dozen streets in the US named after Pétain, who was originally honored as a World War I hero.
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 collaborators and fascists to be honored in the US, or abroad for that matter. In January 2021, an investigation by The Forward identified more than 1,500 statues and streets honoring Nazi collaborators around the world. In the US alone, there are at least 37 such monuments.
There are, of course, monuments, plaques, and statues to many other unsavory or disgraced figures in the US, from Confederate generals to colonialists and slave traders. In 2020, during the George Floyd protests, those statues became a focal point as activists either tore them down or worked to have them legally removed. Yet, in most cases, the public art commemorating fascists — and thus whitewashing fascist history — remain in place. And many, like the Pétain and Laval plaques, were installed in recent decades.
Understanding why can help make sense of far-right revisionism, which has lurked below the surface in the US for decades and recently exploded into public view.