From symbols of identity to memorials

A conversation about national monuments past and present

On 5th August 2016, Christine Tauber presented a public lecture as part of the MWW’s International Summer School in Weimar. The lecture was entitled: “How to build national monuments? Ambitious projects in Germany and France.” We asked the art historian about her favourite monument, the differences between monument traditions in Germany and France, and why it is so difficult to build national monuments today.


Das Weimarer Goethe- und Schiller-Denkmal, leicht verfremdet. Postkarte zu den öffentlichen Abendvorträgen der Internationalen Sommerschule von MMM 2016 in Weimar. © KSW, MWW

Interview by Nicole Alexander

Mrs Tauber, is there a national monument which you think is particularly successful?

Of course, in an interview about a lecture in Weimar, there can only be one answer: the Goethe-Schiller monument in front of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar. The monument was created by Ernst Rietschel for the cultural nation of Germany; I particularly like it because it is not charged with nationalistic chauvinism and it presents itself in a civic, non-monumental way. Or, to quote the words of the historian Wolfgang Hardtwig:  “As a product of the prolific 19th century German tradition of national monuments, Rietschel at any rate succeeded in creating one of the least pretentious, most original and most congenial examples; such monuments were often aesthetically and politically highly questionable.” However, I do think that, generally speaking, the era of national monuments and the idea of national or nationalistic stereotypes which is associated with them is over. And that is a good thing.

According to the historian Thomas Nipperdey, national monuments are those which are referred to as such. To what extent do you think this definition is true?

For me, this definition from Nipperdey’s still canonical essay on national monuments ("Nationalidee und Nationaldenkmal in Deutschland") seems to apply in so far as it raises difficult questions about the acceptance of monuments and the loyalties of those who build them. If contemporaries referred to a monument as a ‘national monument’, then it was considered as such, at least at that moment in history. The definition is certainly not sufficient; Nipperdey himself wrote that he only introduced it as a “nominalistic” minimal solution. And he certainly puts more on offer by defining the “material conditions” which must be met in order for a monument to be considered a national monument. Such a monument must firstly, realise the nation as a whole through the representation of a personalised or eventful past and secondly, it must immortalise the present. Finally, it must visualise an idea, whatever the ideological notion may be. Nipperdey’s convincing conclusion was that the “national monument is an attempt to affirm national identity with a graphic, enduring symbol.”

Your lecture is entitled “How to build national monuments? Ambitious projects in Germany and France”. To what extent do these two countries differ with regard to monument traditions?

Firstly, the monument tradition in France dates back further than in Germany. However, many of these projects came to a standstill in their ephemeral or architectural planning during the French Revolution and its celebrations. In Germany, however, there was real boom in monuments in the latter half of the 19th century in particular. Secondly, in France, there was a trend towards the de-personalisation of monuments in that the royal statues in the Places royales, which were largely destroyed during the French Revolution, were to be replaced by representations of the French people as a whole, or the French Republic. However, the attempt to establish a completely new system of signs, symbols and monuments on the tabula rasa created by the vandalism of the revolution did not succeed.

In Germany, we see the opposite trend with the erection of monumental memorials to individuals, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm I and Bismarck. The centralist, state-controlled sponsorship of the French monument tradition contrasts with the plurality brought about by German federalism, which paved the way for a wide range of regional monuments in addition to national monuments.

You mentioned the boom in monuments in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century; this was ultimately aimed at promoting national identity. Did this endeavour succeed?

This question can probably only be answered for each individual case and only in relation to a specific historical situation. The Valhalla as hall of fame for the cultural nation of Germany was actually conceived as a work in progress and the addition of new busts was planned.  In the 19th century, this monument undoubtedly worked well in terms of forging a national identity, although it can be traced back to the initiative of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. For monument projects with strong Prussian connotations, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm monuments at Hohensyburg or at Deutsches Eck in Koblenz, it would have been more difficult to create this sense of identity. In general, the most successful monuments were those which were able to connect conceptually with other national ideologies such as the German sense of home (Heimat), or which were in landscapes perceived as typically German. What is more, such monuments became tourist attractions and popular destinations for outings; they appealed to the wider public, addressed all levels of society and were financially lucrative.

Recently, plans for a freedom and unity monument in Berlin were put on hold and prior to this, an architecture competition for the creation of a new unity monument in Leipzig was abandoned. Is this – at least temporary – dual failure within the space of a few years a coincidence, or is it an indication that national monuments are no longer in keeping with the times or unable to gain consensus?

As suggested earlier, it seems to me that, fortunately, national components no longer form the predominant paradigm for our concept of the state. In these times of supposed post-colonialism and advancing neo-capitalist globalisation, national monuments are no longer relevant.  However, in my view, the juries’ lack of aesthetic judgement also contributed to the failures in Berlin and Leipzig. In Berlin, the jury chose the artistic solution which seemed to conform most closely to the social inclination towards amusement and leisure of our times. With the plurality of interests in Germany no longer primarily defined by national categories, there no longer seems to be a sense for autonomous works of art characterised by a harmonious whole between form and content, nor is there a desire for this.

From an aesthetic point of view, do you think the national monuments erected in 19th century Germany are harmonious?

No, not all of them can be regarded as successful works of art; on the contrary, too many examples display an unbearable military style which may even seem absurd to the modern observer. And attempts to solve the problem of consensus through the use of abstract forms were also ineffective in the long run, as in the case of the Bismarck towers, which were built across Germany. By the end of the World War I at the latest, the age of the national monument was over; national heroism changed into mourning and despair at the senseless loss of life in a militarised nation and in fact, since then, only memorials have been erected.

Dr. Christine Tauber is a professor of art history at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her work focuses on Italian and French Renaissance art, works of art as historical sources, patronage research, the history of art history (in particular Jacob Burckhardt) and French art from 1780 to 1830.

On 5th August 2016 at 7:00 pm, Tauber presents a public lecture at the Goethe National Museum in Weimar entitled ‘How do we build national monuments? Ambitious projects in Germany and France.’ The event is open to the public and entry is free of charge. This lecture is held as part of the annual MWW Research Association’s International Summer School 2016. The summer school theme is ‘How Do National Authors Emerge? Construction and Ambition’ and took place in Weimar.