German National Monuments – Weird Wonders of the Wilhelmine World

Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (1896) at Porta Westfalica. The Kaiser is shown as a triumphant Caesar, bearing a laurel wreath.
Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (1896) at Porta Westfalica. The Kaiser is shown as a triumphant Caesar, bearing a laurel wreath.

Dotting Germany’s northern half, there is a collection of 19th century monuments that are astonishing both in size and theme. These huge memorials have various motifs: many are dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm I and were built after his death in 1888. Others, like Berlin’s Victory Column, glorify battles as recent as the victory over the French in 1871, or as ancient as the Roman legions’ defeat by the Germanic tribes under Hermann the Cherusker in 9 CE, at the Hermannsdenkmal near Detmold. The central theme of all these monuments is that they celebrate the German nation’s unity, symbolized by the royal and imperial family.

National monuments – German statues of liberty?

Today, these monuments seem absurdly pompous and conservative, and we usually see them as symbols of the militarism and nationalism that led to World War I. But at the time they were built they were also symbols of hope, progress and modernity. The German middle classes of the 1860-90 era took the initiative for many of these monuments and funded them too. Not out of the kind of patriotism that seems narrow-minded today, but as symbols of a newfound national identity that marked a clear cut with the ancient-regime past.

Monument for Hermann the Cherisher, who defeated the Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Hermann is shown facing southeast, towards Germany's
Monument for Hermann the Cherusker, who defeated the Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Hermann faces southwest, towards Germany’s “arch enemy” France.

Ever since the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars which followed, middle-class Germany had tried to rid itself of its archaic, divided system of government. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, and also in the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848. But each time the various local princes, backed by the aristocracy, had been able to more or less restore the scattered status quo.

Therefore, to many ordinary Germans, the proclamation of the Reich and the coronation of the Kaiser at Versailles marked their hope of an end to a period of division, religious intolerance, censorship, and lack of consistent rule of law that had lasted centuries. They were hoping for liberty and democracy. Many people working in Germany’s fast-rising trade and industrial sectors felt that their country had finally caught up with other modern nations such as France and Britain.

North-south divide

Bavaria's Walhalla monument on the Danube near Ratisbon. Pic: Lisa de Jong/helderontwerpwerk.nl
Bavaria’s Walhalla monument on the Danube near Ratisbon. Pic: Lisa de Jong/helderontwerpwerk.nl

It’s worth noting however that none of these grand monuments, shown in red, are in the southern regions of Swabia and Bavaria, possibly indicating a lack of fervour for the idea of a united Germany with Prussia at the helm. The 1842 Walhalla in Bavaria, grand as it may be,  doesn’t celebrate German unity, but rather the greatness of the German speaking area (including, for convenience’s sake and not to the liking of many Dutchmen, the Netherlands). And another early Bavarian monument, the Befreiungshalle at Kelheim from 1863, celebrates the liberation of German lands from Napoleonic oppression in 1813, but expressly aims to maintain Germany’s federalist status quo (it depicts all 35 members of the German Bund at that time).

Memorial building during the reign of Wilhelm II

Bismarck statue (and Victory Column) in Berlin. Both were moved from in front of the Reichstag to their current location in 1939.
Bismarck statue (and Victory Column) in Berlin. Both were moved from in front of the Reichstag to their current location in 1939.

After the death of Wilhelm I, and once the initial wave of monuments in his honour had been built, the monument-building frenzy cooled. His successor, Wilhelm II, was never as popular as the first Kaiser, and in his thirty year reign never inspired the population to keep up the momentum. In fact, monument builders turned to Bismarck as a subject, the original chancellor of united Germany dismissed by Wilhelm in 1890. The 1913 Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Memorial to the Battle of the Nations) was built, like the Befreiungshalle above, to remember the 1813 battle between Napoleon’s troops and the Allies on the outskirts of Leipzig. It was the last of the great patriotic monuments built in Germany’s version of the long nineteenth century.

Public perception and the monuments’ survival

From Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) to Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal, these memorials have physically stood the test of time well. Considering all the political and ideological changes since they were built, the remarkable thing is that they have survived at all!

Germania is handed the crown. Detail of the mosaic at the foot of Berlin's Victory Column. Mythical Germania was shown instead of Kaiser Wilhelm I to avoid offending King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who had second thoughts about Wilhelm's nomination.
Germania is handed the crown. Detail of the mosaic at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column. Mythical Germania was shown instead of Kaiser Wilhelm I to avoid offending King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had second thoughts about Wilhelm’s nomination.
Nazi demonstration at Leipzig's Monument for the Battle of the Nations
Nazi demonstration at Leipzig’s Monument for the Battle of the Nations

When World War I ended and the Kaiser abdicated, the public’s perception of the memorials, and the political system that produced them, changed considerably. For many Germans, they were embarrassing reminders of the era of the last Hohenzollern Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, by the end of the Great War, had lost all credibility with the population. But only a few years later, the Nazis were able to seamlessly fit the monuments into their myth of German history. Their often spectacular locations and huge scale made them great venues for Nazi mass meetings.

At the end of World War II, the end appeared to have come for many monuments. The Allies, whether capitalist or communist, were united in their abhorrence of these gigantic symbols of Prussian nationalism and militarism. The monument at Porta Westfalica almost succumbed when the British occupation force blew up the tunnels in the mountain below that had been used as a forced-labour camp by the Nazis, but survived (part of the viewing platform surrounding it fell down the mountain, though). And the local Soviet military commander could only just prevent East German communists from destroying the Kyffhäuser Kaiser Wilhelm memorial – he is famously supposed to have said: “It is time you Germans finally learn to live with your history and your monuments!”

Day-tripping the monuments

Although many are in more or less remote locations, monument builders took care to make them accessible on day trips for workers from Germany’s emerging industrial cities, sometimes creating a railway station especially for the memorial. For the monuments to carry their nation-building message successfully, it was essential that as many ordinary people as possible would be able to visit them. Souvenirs and miniature monuments were sold at affordable prices, to make sure people would take the message home with them (for a collection of these, see the exhibition at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column).

The Kaiser memorial at Porta Westfalica gives a great view of the surrounding hills and forests. At the bank of the river Weser, bottom, you can see the railway station built for the monument.
The Kaiser memorial at Porta Westfalica gives a great view of the surrounding hills and forests. At the bank of the river Weser, centre, you can see the railway station built to afford access to the monument.

But also after the end of World War II, the monuments remained popular regional day trip destinations for ordinary Germans – just as they were in the era when they were built. Despite the ideological contrasts of both East and West Germany with the monuments’  nationalist and militarist messages, people kept coming to visit, if only to enjoy the view from the scenic vantage points on which they were built. In fact, that is how many of the local Tourist Boards refer to them today. Rather than entangling themselves in the monuments’ murky political history, they simply promote them as viewing platforms.

For more information on the historical background of many of the larger monuments and practical information on visiting them, consult the website of Strasse der Monumente –  a network of monument owners run by Berlin’s Victory Column.

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