Berliners have a reputation for being outspoken and irreverent, so it should come as no surprise that they come up with nicknames for just about everyone and everything, from politicians to political symbols.
One of the iconic symbols of the city of Berlin is the Siegessaüle, or Victory Tower.
It costs €4 to enter the column, whether you want to climb the 285 steps to the top, or just stand on the lower platform. Ted and I had already done 10,000+ steps through the Tiergarten by the time we reached the column, so we decided to make do with observing from outside, on ground level.
Again, there are LOTS of signs, in German and English, explaining the history and construction of the tower, so although we arrived knowing very little, we left feeling smarter. (An interesting aside: the information on Wikipedia does not always match the information posted at sites, and is not always “accredited”. I’m relying on what is posted at the site, allowing for potential local bias – especially since we’re noticing that German history does not seem to get whitewashed, since it is under regular scrutiny by the world at large.)
Because I wanted to remember ALL the information, Ted took a photo of the sign (there was quite a bit of reflection on the glass), I duplicated the photo and cropped it into paragraph-sized pieces, used my iPad photo app to sharpen each picture, and then put it through Google Lens to “read” the text and copy it, so that I wouldn’t have to retype every word. That left a little bit of “clean-up” to do where Google missed letters or misread words due to glare or shadow, but in general it worked really well.
ALL the text below (except captions on Ted’s photos, and any comments in brackets) comes directly from this sign located at the Victory Column:
BERLIN’S VICTORY COLUMN
The memorial to commemorate our victories will be promoted, as desired by our pride.” Zeitschrift für Bildende Kunst, 1871
On 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, the Prussian King Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor by the German princes. This had been preceded by the later so-called “Unification Wars”, three wars which Prussia, in various alliances, had all won victoriously. As a result of its military success, twenty-two up until then sovereign German states (excluding Austria) and three free Hanseatic cities merged together to form the first German national state, the German Empire.
The Victory Column of Berlin, its purposes to glorify most recent history, was the first national monument erected in the newly founded empire in its new capital city and sparked off a number of other monument initiatives.
Its style is a perfect example of the empire’s feeling for architecture (the Gründerjahre period). The statue of Victoria, made by Friedrich Drake, is a late conclusion of the 19th century drafts of Schinkel and Rauch.
This unique memorial column, with its unusual proportions and sheer size, was designed to compete with the other similar memorials of high aspiration in Europe’s capital cities, such as the Colonne Vendôme in Paris or London’s Nelson Column.
As part of the plans to convert the city of Berlin into the National Socialist capital “Germania”, the column was dismantled in 1938 and transferred from Königsplatz to Großer Stern. Following the plans of Albert Speer (1905-1981), another cylinder block was added to the column, increasing its height (by 6.5 metres) to 67 metres. The pedestal was also enlarged.
The Victory Column was solemnly inaugurated on September 1873, the date of the third anniversary commemorating the victorious “Battle of Sedan” against the French.
The inauguration took place at what was then known as Königsplatz (today’s Platz der Republik). The column was designed by Jahon Halerich Strack (1805-1880), who continually being surpassed by new events, had been working on its sketches since 1864.
Four frieze relief plates, made from the metal of melted down captured cannons, are set into the architrave block of red granite. They depict the three wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870, as well as the triumphal procession into Berlin on 16 June 1871.
The sculptor Alexander Calandrelli (1834-1903) modelled the Second Schleswig War of 1864 onto the west side of the column.
On the south side, above the entrance, there is an illustration of the German War of 1866, depicted by Moritz Schulz (1825-1904).
The third relief, [east] created by Carl Kell (1838-1889), shows the Franco-Prussian War 1870/71, which broke France’s opposition to the emergence of a strong Prussian-German nation in the centre of Europe.
Above this [east] relief, still traceable today by the marks left by its old fixings, once stood the dedication “The Graceful Fatherland Pays Tribute To The Victorious Army”, which was removed after the Second World War.
There follows on the sign a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche (yes, THAT Nietzsche) working as a medical orderly, in a letter to Richard Wagner (again, yes THAT Wagner) on 11 September 1870: “…I had a squalid cattle wagon in which I had to care for, bandage, and nurse six severely wounded men at that time. Their bones had been shot to pieces and they had all received multiple injuries. I also discovered that two of them had wound diphtheria. It’s a miracle to me that I managed to survive in that cesspit, to eat or sleep…”
Finally, Albert Wolff’s (1814-1892) triumphal procession of the victorious troops through Berlin in Summer 1871 can be seen to the north. Over 180,000 soldiers from both sides fell during this one war alone, making it into one of the bloodiest wars in European history.
There is another information plaque located in the tunnel that goes under the road from each side of the street to the monument in the centre circle. It reads: Berlin’s Victory Column was an eyesore to the French for a number of obvious reasons. In May 1945, directly following the end of World War II, the French hoisted their Tricoleur as a military standard to its top in celebration of their victory, dismantled three of the four frieze reliefs from the pedestal and removed them to Paris. Their request in 1946 to tear the column down was vetoed by the other Allied military powers in Berlin. The missing pieces in the arbitrave block were bricked up and then later covered by granite plates, and in the course of history the reliefs were soon lost track of. In 1984 and 1987, on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th year anniversary and as a sign of reconciliation between the two nations, the reliefs were ceremonially returned from Paris. They were attached to the monument deliberately left in a fragmented state. These granite plates, which sealed the spaces left by the removed frieze reliefs for more than four decades, have themselves today become a part of history. In combination with the reinstalled reliefs, they enhance the column’s primary statement, making this war memorial of the past into a site of contemporary reflection on German bistory.
Above the pedestal and reliefs, a circular mosaic of glass fragments, designed by the painter Auton von Werner (1843-1915) and made by Antonio Salviari from Venice, is set into a circular hall, reminiscent of a temple. Over the door, Germania, the “Guard of the Rhine” keeps lookout towards the west. A crowned Prussian eagle and a Gallic eagle wearing the Tricolour symbolise an impending war, with the biggest danger being exuded from the personification of the French. Both are floating on cloud which brings the scourges of mankind: war, hunger and disease. Soldiers from the four kingdoms of Saxony, Bavaria, Prussia and Württemberg unite for the battle, under the waving black-white-red flag of the German Empire. The scene in the middle, in which the Prussian and Bavarian military leaders – mounted on horseback – shaking hands on the battlefield, symbolizes the fraternization between northern and southern Germany. The battle can only end with a victory. On the steps of the throne an allegory “loco imperatoris” – in lieu of the emperor – Wilhelm I receives the medieval imperial crown being handed over by a Bavarian herald. Surrounded by ravens, King Barbarossa, still slumbering in Kyffhauser, awakes and draws his sword. The figures who hand the weapons to Germania emerge – a seemingly endless circle.
The column proper, made of sandstone, is finished off with frieze of eagles. It is decorated with the muzzles of gilded guns which were captured in conquered countries of Denmark, Austria and France and presented as booty. Since 1939, the top cylinder block has been decorated with laurel garlands, forming a visual interpretation of the gun barrels.
“…I never really understood what the cannons meant … if the French went to war with golden weapons, or if the gold we had taken from them were made into cannons by us.” Walter Benjamin, in his book Berlin Childhood, around 1900
The column is crowned by the goddess of victory poised above the entire monument, weighing about forty tonnes and 8.32 metres in height, made of fire-gilded bronze by the sculptor Friedrich Drake (1805-1882). The Victoria, her wings outstretched, with the military ensign and the Iron Cross, is holding up the laurel wreath in her tight hand. She is wearing Prussian eagle helmet upon her head, giving her the appearance of Borussia, the personification of Prussia. It didn’t take long before the Berliners, fond of awarding buildings nicknames, endearingly named her after a popular serialised magazine novel at the time, “Goldelse” (“Golden Lizzy’).
In the course of its history, the Berlin Victory Column has been under threat several times. By miracle only it survived the bombing raids of the Second World War basically unharmed, bearing today only a few minor scars. Both Berlin’s elected magistrate and the French military command lodged formal requests for its demolition in 1946. This plan simply fizzled out, not only for financial reasons, but also because the remaining members of the Allied Powers vetoed the request. Restoration work began in the mid-1950s and continued until the 1980s. In 1984 and 1987, on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th year anniversary and as a sign of reconciliation between the two nations, the reliefs (removed and taken by the French after WWII) were ceremonially returned from Paris. The fourth relief (illustrating the German War against Austria) had never left Berlin. The and comprehensive restoration the Victory Column, the tunnels and the surrounding tunnel entrances began in 2010/11.
As a result of Barack Obama’s speech on its steps on 24 July 2008, the Victory Column has once again achieved international recognition as a Berlin landmark and an attraction for international tourism. 285 steps lead up the platform, which offers an excellent view all over the city. As piece of history which can literally not be missed, it represents today a visible reminder of what militarism and nationalism can lead to. A place bearing the marks of history, it causes one to think.
This monument has thus become less of a historical national monument and more a depiction of German history.
(End of text from the sign.)
While we were initially impressed by the sheer size and grandeur of the monument, visible all the way from the Brandenburger Tor a full 2 km away, it was the history that will leave a lasting impression on me.
In my opinion, this monument is a great example of how to deal with politically incorrect monuments: explain the history to those viewing them, or if necessary to those viewing the empty space where they once existed. It’s a “teachable moment”.
INTERESTING NOTE: If you’ve never heard the term “Borussia” before, join the club – I had to look it up. It’s the Latin for Prussia (the area that’s now Germany, Poland, Lithuania and parts of Russia). The word is still in use in the names of some German soccer teams, like Dortmund BVB, who are “Borussia Dortmund” !