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National Monuments and Nationalism in 19th Century Germany

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Hans A. Pohlsander

No century in modern European history has built monuments with more enthusiasm than the 19th. Of the hundreds of monuments erected, those which sprang from a nation-wide initiative and addressed themselves to a nation, rather than part of a nation, we may call national monuments. Nelson’s Column in London or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris are obvious examples. In Germany the 19th century witnessed a veritable flood of monuments, many of which rank as national monuments. These reflected and contributed to a developing sense of national identity and the search for national unity; they also document an unsuccessful effort to create a «genuinely German» style. They constitute a historical record, quite apart from aesthetic appeal or ideological message. As this historical record is examined, German national monuments of the 19th century are described and interpreted against the background of the nationalism which gave birth to them.

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CHAPTER IX “Heil Dir im Siegerkranz” 203

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Chapter IX “Heil Dir im Siegerkranz” Emperor Wilhelm I had refused to have a monument erected to himself while he was still alive; the Siegessäule, the Hermannsdenkmal, and the Niederwalddenkmal were erected during his reign and are, by their subject matter, closely associated with him, but are not monuments to him. With his death the situation radically changed: between 1888 and 1918 hundreds of monuments, some of them of extraordinary size, were erected to him throughout the country.1 Today, more than a century and two World Wars later, the German public is far removed from the national enthusiasm and euphoria which prevailed in the 19th century; it is at times discomfited by the monuments which that enthusiasm and that euphoria produced. Thus, in 1996 one observer remarks, “especially the ‘Gigantomanie’ of the monuments seems to me to be a manifestation of an excessive national pride as well as of an inner insecurity.”2 And yet, so the same observer correctly declares, “we must confront each epoch of our history and engage with it, even and especially when we internally reject it. It serves no good purpose to remove the external symbols … The monument to Emperor Wilhelm [at Porta Westfalica] remains for us an important witness of the times and therefore a heritage which we must preserve.”3 This principle applies just as much, 1 Tittel, “Monumentaldenkmäler” 231–32. Hardtwig, Geschichtskultur 274. Gießelmann, “Die Provinz Westfalen” 178. Günter Mai, “Denkmäler und politische Kultur” 13. Günther...

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