Wings Of Fire – Siegessäule:  Berlin’s Monument To Militarism

One of the most iconic World War II photographs shows the flag of the Soviet Union being raised by a Red Army soldier atop the burned out Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin. After four years of the most violent conflict in human history the Soviets had finally defeated Nazism. The heart and soul of the fascist beast, Berlin, was finally occupied. The photo was taken on May 2, 1945. On that same day, another nation’s flag flew over a symbolic monument not very far from the Reichstag. At the center of the Grosser Stern (Great Star), an intersection where four major boulevards converge, the flag of Poland was unfurled atop the Siegessäule (Victory Column). It was an incredible irony. The countries where Nazi Germany had carried out their most destructive actions during the war were now flying their flags atop two of Berlin’s most famous architectural wonders.

While many are aware of the Reichstag’s importance, the Siegessäule was just as mighty a symbol. Until 1938 it had stood in front of the Reichstag. Then it was uprooted and moved to the Grosser Stern. This was done in order to make way for the building of what was going to be the Nazi capital of the world, Germania. The Siegessäule had been constructed to commemorate multiple German victories in warfare, but by the end of the Second World War it was just another monument to German defeat. Today it stands at Grosser Stern as a soaring reminder of the ill-fated fortunes of modern German history.

Antoni Jabłoński hoists the Polish flag over Berlin from the Siegessäule

Antoni Jabłoński hoists the Polish flag over Berlin from the Siegessäule (Victory Column) on May 2, 1945

Unification & Division – Warfare For Germany
The fact that the Siegessäule still exists is due to luck and a historical twist of fate, Nazi planning for a city that would never exist. If not for its pre-war relocation, the monument would almost certainly have been destroyed by American air raids. It certainly would have made an inviting target. Now as a major tourist attraction in the city, it is best known for the commanding views that can be seen from the top of it. A 360 degree look at the surrounding Tiergarten and greater Berlin is well worth an exhaustion inducing trek up a spiral staircase of 585 steps. Yet the Siegessäule is more than just a modern tourist attraction.  It is also a place loaded with political and historical meaning, symbolic of the martial efforts that led to Germany’s unification and downfall.

It took nearly a decade to erect the Siegessäule. While sculptors and artisans worked on constructing the monument from 1864 to 1873, Germany was being unified by the military might of Prussia. The Siegessäule was first commissioned to honor the victory over Denmark in the Danish-Prussian War of 1864. This resulted in Prussia acquiring the region of Schleswig-Holstein in what is today northern Germany. Later victories in the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War would also be commemorated by the monument.  Each of these wars was represented on the Siegessäule by circular sandstone columns, stacked one atop another and adorned with cannon barrels captured as prizes of war. The monument as it was originally conceived honored German militarism’s role in creating a unified state. Now it acts as a useful reminder that even before the Nazis came to power, modern Germany was brought together by the same thing that would tear it apart, warfare.

The Siegessäule - a view from above

The Siegessäule surrounded by the Grosser Stern (Great Star) – a view from above (Credit: Stephen Karl)

Homage To Future Victories – Monumental Arrogance
The Nazis went one better on the Siegessäule, adding a fourth, shorter column above the other three on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. This was done in 1938, paying homage to future victories in the wars to come. This act of incredible hubris demonstrates the arrogant martial ethos of Nazi Germany. In that same year a military parade with 40,000 soldiers took four hours to march past the monument. The boulevard running east-west up to, around and past the monument had been widened to accommodate just such a display. German martial supremacy was given pride of place by the Nazis. And what better place to display the strength and virility of the nation, than close on a monument which celebrated the victories that had created a unified Germany.

There were more such victories to come at the start of the Second World War, but these led to overreach and ultimately defeat. At the beginning of May 1945 smoke from a burned out Berlin was rising all around the Siegessäule, which now cut a rather lonely figure. The monument was still topped by a 35 ton, gilded angel wrapped in gold. Soviet troops had deemed it “The Tall Woman.” This exquisite figure was meant to portray Victoria, the winged Roman Goddess of Victory, but everything Victoria looked down upon during that miserable spring of 1945 was destitution and defeat. What she had stood for was now all but forgotten. The idea of German military might had been shattered. Nonetheless, the Siegessäule stayed in place, no longer a reminder of a triumphal past. It was just there, a place marker and a window offering a vast panorama on a city divided during the Cold War.

Statue of Victoria atop the Siegessäule - still facing west

Statue of Victoria atop the Siegessäule – still facing west (Credit: Thomas Wolf)

Changing Perspectives – Facing An Old Enemy & A New Ally
Eventually the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited. By then the Siegessäule had become a benign symbol. Berliners had taken to calling it “the Goldelse”, while westerners sometimes referred to it as “the Chick on the Stick.” Now it is known more for offering a splendid viewpoint than anything else. All the might, menace and martial power the monument once represented has lost much of its meaning. Yet it is still there for those who care not to look out from it, but instead stand on the ground from below and look up at it.

Such a change in perspective is telling. Gold winged Victoria faces west, towards France. This was done deliberately. The conflict the Siegessäule was meant to most commemorate was the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. That victory led to the declaration of the German Empire. It also set Germany on a course that would ultimately lead to defeat, ruin, reconstruction and resurgence. Where once the Victoria was situated so as to face in the direction of an old enemy, it now faces towards that same nation which is now a close ally. She also faces towards the freedom and prosperity of the west while turning her back to the east. The Siegessäule still stands in the same place, but the meaning has slowly changed, just like modern Germany.

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