Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bismarck Denkmal

Joshua is studying for his exams, so I shall make use of the enforced “quiet time” to write about some of the attractions we visited in Hamburg in 2006. Josh and I want to complete writing about our Hamburg experiences while our memories are still fresh.

Hamburg’s largest and highest monument is the Bismarck Denkmal, depicting former Chancellor Of The German Reich, Count Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898), the force behind the unification of Germany and the man known as the “Iron Chancellor”. The Bismarck Denkmal is the most well-known image of Bismarck in Germany.

At a total height of 111 feet, the monument is located in the Alter Elbpark, a park situated near The River Elbe, and seems to keep a guarding eye over nearby Landungsbrucken and Hamburg Harbor. Due to its location atop the highest hill in the center of Hamburg, erected on a former bastion of ancient city walls, the Bismarck Denkmal is visible from afar within central Hamburg environs.

The stylized statue of Bismarck, leaning on a mighty sword and clad in a Medieval suit of armor, looking to the West, in the direction of the North Sea, was created by sculptor Hugo Lederer and architect Emil Schaudt and erected between 1903 and 1906. The statue was intended to call to mind Roland, the famous warrior of The Middle Ages, and to suggest the German Reich’s protection of Hamburg’s international trade. The figure is approximately 50 feet tall, and rests on a base of similar height.

Two eagles perch at Bismarck’s feet. The plinth features bas-reliefs of various Germanic tribes—athletic male figures, visible on the staircase that forms the base of the statue.

The monument is constructed of 100 massive blocks of granite, imported from the Black Forest, and weighs 625 tons.

The interior of the monument is no longer open. There is a painting gallery inside, with frescoes that can only be called “Prussian”, and sun wheels, and swastikas. Militaristic quotes by Bismarck adorn the walls (“not by speeches and majority resolutions are the large questions of the time decided, but by iron and blood”).

There are also extensive catacombs under the statue. These were expanded in 1939 and 1940—a 95-meter by 37-meter underground room was created, with two entrances—and used as an air raid shelter during the war years, for the use of ship passengers, harbor visitors and nearby residents. The catacombs offered protection for 650 persons.

My brother and Josh and I searched for and located one of the entrances to the air raid shelter. It was situated at the bottom of the hill on which the monuments rests, at the point nearest the Hamburg Harbor, and had been sealed with cement and skillfully concealed through landscaping, trees and shrubbery. Casual passersby would never know the entrance had existed—only a thorough inspection of the base of the hill revealed the shelter entrance.

At the time of its planning, the Bismarck monument was widely welcomed by Hamburg’s middle and upper classes, but fiercely opposed by Hamburg’s working classes, since the latter regarded Bismarck as a symbol of Wilhelmine imperialism. Today no one pays any attention to the Bismarck Denkmal in the least. Contemporary Hamburgers may view the monument as an acute embarrassment. We observed no one other than ourselves ascend the hill to observe the monument up close, even though the view from the hill was a prime spot to look out over Hamburg.

The monument is very much of its time and place. Today’s American visitor must find the monument undeniably imposing, and even quite fascinating, but also somewhat repugnant.

The Bismarck Denkmal reached a peak of popularity in Hamburg during the period of National Socialism, when Bismarck’s instrumental role in unifying Germany in the 19th Century became a rallying point for German nationalism of the 1930’s. The memorial became the site of an annual wreath-laying ("Kranzniederlegung") ceremony during that decade. The photo below reveals the monument during a Kranzniederlegung ceremony.

The statue may soon be closed off from public viewing—it has a 9-centimeter list.

Before we traveled to Hamburg, we researched the city extensively through books and the internet, and came across a particularly amusing description of the Bismarck Denkmal from an American who claims to have lived in Germany for the past twenty years. On this person’s website, alongside a photograph of the Bismarck Denkmal, he wrote that the monument is a memorial to Hamburg’s industrial workers, as personified by an inscription at its base to one Josef Leberer!

We laughed ourselves silly.

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