What is Siegessäule?
The Siegessäule, or Berlin Victory Column in English, is a monument in Berlin that was erected in the mid-19th century to commemorate the Prussian-Austrian victory against the Kingdom of Denmark.
In the mid-19th century, Prussian and Austrian forces engaged in a conflict with the Kingdom of Denmark over the so-called Schleswig-Holstein Question, a complex set of disagreements regarding the status of two north European territories, Schleswig and Holstein. In fact, so complex was the controversy that 19th-century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is said to have quipped: ‘Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business – the Prince Consort, who is dead – a German professor, who has gone mad – and I, who have forgotten all about it.’ In 1864, the Prussian-Austrian forces gained control of the disputed territories and struck a (short-lived) peace treaty in Vienna.
The towering Siegessäule (or Victory Column), designed by Heinrich Strack, was built to commemorate this Prussian military victory. However, at the time of the column’s inauguration, Prussia had been on somewhat of a winning streak, having also defeated Austria, their erstwhile allies, and France, which resulted in a unified Germany. If you look to the column’s base you’ll see large bronze reliefs depicting these three famous victories, whilst a fourth shows the return of the victorious troops to Berlin in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. These reliefs were actually captured by the French Army in 1945 and only returned to Berlin in the 1980s.
Integrated into the column itself are 60 gilded cannons captured by the Prussian Army during the three wars, whilst the monument is topped by an eight-metre statue of the Roman goddess of victory, designed by Friedrich Drake. The gilded bronze sculpture, known by the locals as Goldelse (something like ‘Golden Lizzy’), holds in her hands a laurel wreath and an army flag with an iron cross. Her helmet is decorated with an eagle that’s said to identify the figure with Borussia, the personification of Prussia, which is derived from its Latin name.
The column, which originally stood just across from the Reichstag, was officially unveiled on the third anniversary of the capture of Napoleon III, the French Emperor, by Prussian troops in September 1870. At the turn of the 20th century, the monument stood at the end of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Siegesallee (or Victory Avenue), a wide boulevard flanked by marble statues commemorating former rulers of Brandenburg and Prussia, which Berliners dubbed the Puppenallee (or ‘avenue of dolls’). Apparently the nickname so offended Kaiser Wilhelm that he took to denying Berlin his imperial presence, figuring that eventually ‘they will come crawling back on all fours’. The column was moved to its current spot by the Nazi regime in the late 1930s, part of their projected total redesign of Berlin as the capital of the Thousand-year Reich.
Since its move, the monument has served as the backdrop to (and sometimes featured directly in) many of the city’s most momentous events. During the Allies’ Victory Parade in 1945, the French flag was raised alongside the Roman goddess; in 2008 a crowd of 200,000 gathered here to hear Barack Obama speak during his world tour. For the last four decades, the column has also been a symbol of the city’s gay community, and Berlin Pride Festival usually includes the Siegessäule as one of its stops. Although commissioned in the mid-19th century as a celebration of a Prussian military victory, this iconic column now acts as the emblem of a diverse and peaceful Berlin.
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