16 July 2017

The Monument to the Battle of Nations: The Biggest Monument in Europe

The shadow of a new war was already casting a long shadow in 1913. Yet it was the year when the people of the city of Leipzig in the German state of Saxony saw the completion of their monument to a battle which had taken place exactly a century before.

The Monument to the Battle of Nations commemorated the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. However, for almost a century after its inauguration, this remembrance of a battle of the past would be used by one group or another for their own ideological purposes.

In 1813, the coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden had fought against the French army which also contained Polish and Italian troops not to mention Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine. Little wonder it also became known as the Battle of the Nations: involving over 600,000 soldiers, the battle was the largest in Europe preceding World War II. The monument certainly reflects the immensity of the conflict.
Yet the symbolism of this temple of death and freedom has often been misused: the monarchists in the Weimar Republic, the Nazis in the Third Reich and the Stalinists in East Germany have all attempted to use it for their own ends. It is only the last few decades which have seen it returned to its true role in the pantheon of critical commemoration and the European culture of remembrance.

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Known in German as Völkerschlachtdenkmal (sometimes shortened to Völki) the monument stands on the ground where the bloodiest fighting of the gargantuan battle took place.  It stands 300 feet (the 500 steps to the top facilitate outstanding views across the city).  It was at this place that Napoleon ordered his army to retreat, compelling him to retreat to France.  The invasion of the country by the coalition armies happened a year later and Napoleon would soon after end up in exile on the isle of Elba.

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The four day battle saw over 100,000 soldiers perish, a calamitous death toll the like of which had never been seen in Europe before this – and indeed for a century after.   The year after the battle, in 1814, proposals were made for a monument to the battle.  Yet the foundation stone was not placed until the 50th anniversary of the event, in 1863.  Even then there were no funds available to build anything.

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Decades later, Clemens Thieme, who was a member of the Association for the History or Leipzig, learned about these aborted plans and decided to do something about it.  In 1894 he founded the Association of German Patriots and raised enough money, through lotteries and donations, the means necessary to build the monument.  This was a remarkable achievement – the total raised was 6 million goldmark (that would be about 75 million US dollars today).

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Two years later the city of Leipzig donated the land upon which the monument stands and the architect Bruno Schmitz was commissioned to design and build it: The Monument to the Battle of the Nations would become his most famous work.  Construction began in 1898 and took fifteen years, involving the removal of 82,000 cubic meters of soil. Altogether 26,500 granite blocks were placed over the monument’s concrete façade.

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The monument is, incredibly, only two storeys high.  The first is a crypt which is dominated by the gargantuan statues of eight fallen warriors.  Around these are placed a number of smaller statues known as the Totenwächter – who guard the dead.

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The next story. the Ruhmeshalle, features four additional statues which represent the qualities attributed to the German people - bravery, faith, sacrifice, and fertility. Each stands over 30 feet in height.  All the statues were sculpted by Christian Behrens who unfortunately died mid-project.  The remainder of the work was carried out by his apprentice, Franz Metzner, much of whose work would be lost in the rubble of the Second World War.

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Such heroic architecture, presenting as it does the German ideals of virility and courage in such folkloric and gargantuan manner would naturally become associated with political strains of German nationalism in the period between the World Wars. When Hitler visited the city he would as a matter of course demand the use of the monument to host his meetings.

As the US army captured Leipzig in 1945 the SS holed up in the edifice: it had to be blasted with artillery before the three month siege was lifted.

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As such when the city became part of communist East Germany after the war, the future of the monument was debated.  However, its longer history saved it.  Despite having been used throughout the Nazi era as a symbol of Germanic might, the monument’s true purpose was to commemorate a time when Russian and German soldiers had stood side by side to defeat their common enemy – Napoleon.  As such it was granted a reprieve and survived through to the end of East German communism in 1989.

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The Monument to the Battle of Nations has recently been through extensive renovations to remember the battle on its 200th anniversary.

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Its image is still on occasion purloined by far right parties.  The citizens of Leipzig, however, will have none of it - on one occasion going to a certain extreme to make their point (see above).. For most Germans, the monument is now firmly part of a system of critical commemoration and the European culture of remembrance.

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First Image Credit Gerhard Kemme