What should be done with colonial statues honoring Moroccans forced to fight a European war?
The war memorial was cold and wet, but the warm pulse of history throbbed rhythmically within it. I had driven nearly an hour from my hotel in Paris just to touch its stone base.
This Monument à la Victoire commemorated the 35,000 Moroccan soldiers who had fought for France in the European battlefields of World War I. Of their numbers, 9,000 had died in the trenches, while 17,000 returned wounded. This statue dominated Casablanca’s downtown until 1961, five years after Morocco’s independence. At that time, the monarchy sent the monument to France. It landed—perhaps appropriately—in Senlis, a city briefly under German control in 1915.
Governments often construct monuments to honor an event, and statues actualize flattering interpretations of history. In this instance, the French narrated a past that ignored the forced conscription of Moroccans who died defending a foreign country in a European war.
The colonial government posed the monument’s first stone during a ceremony on Armistice Day in 1921. Hubert Lyautey was Resident General of the French Protectorate. His speech evoked a “friendly and cordial association of two races.” He insisted, “The secret…is the extended hand, and not the condescending hand, but the loyal handshake between man and man.”
The Protectorate commissioned Paul Landowski to design this statue. This sculptor was in great demand after World War I. Landowski designed twenty monuments commemorating soldiers who died between 1914 and 1918, including Les Fantômes in France. By engaging such a famous sculptor, Lyatuey made known the propagandistic significance placed on this statue.
In Morocco, Landowski created an equestrian statue showing a French and a Moroccan soldier shaking hands after their victory in Europe. The figurative representation embodies a highly nostalgic—and false—depiction of the Moroccan soldier, who is dressed in an old-fashioned cape and turban, not the uniform worn in the trenches. In this way, the statue subtly inferred that Moroccan soldiers were a sort of archaic throwbacks to a bygone era.
Each side of the rectangular base of this equestrian monument depicts scenes of Moroccan soldiers participating in the First World War. On one side, the bas-relief “The Departure” underscores the romanticized distinction between Europeans and their Moroccan counterparts. In it, a local woman swathed conservatively in traditional robes bends before colonial soldiers. One Moroccan soldier wears a turban, and a camel accompanies the five men who march off to war.
The names of the fallen are in the Latin alphabet, but the sculptor also included prayers and phrases in Arabic. Etched in stone, one Arabic phrase looks like graffiti. “Write in the sand,” it states, “only that which is not worth remembering.” My throat constrict as I read this line.
I stood next to the Monument à la Victoire for nearly an hour, tracing the letters and photographing the raised images on its base. Historian Diana Wylie writes, “Architecture, like music has enormous power to express, and to shape, who people think they are and what they believe in.” The Monument à la Victoire, though moving, obscures Franco-Moroccan tensions. Despite its artistic and historic value, it will always represent an extractive political system.