In response to German criticisms of his proposal to give a speech at Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate, Barack Obama has now come to agreement with Berlin municipal authorities to give his speech today at the historic “Victory Column” or Siegessäule: approximately one mile down the road and with the Brandenburg Gate still in direct view.
This new arrangement is supposed to have overcome the objections of the critics: first and foremost, Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it is difficult to see how. If, as Wolfram Weimer wrote here, “It shows a lack of respect to want to degrade the historical monuments of friendly countries into electoral campaign scenery,” then clearly this criticism applies just as much to the “Victory Column” as to the Brandenburg Gate.
Moreover, as a new round of critics has hastened to point out, the specific history of the “Victory Column” makes its choice as backdrop for Obama’s German photo opportunity at least ironic, if not downright troubling. For what the candidate and his handlers have decided is the appropriate “scenery” for his Berlin appearance was, in effect, created by none other than Adolf Hitler and his own maestro of political dramaturgy Albert Speer.
The “Victory Column” as such already existed before Hitler and Speer decided that it would form a suitable centerpiece for the “East-West Axis”: one of the two major thoroughfares laid out in their megalomaniacal plans for a “new” Berlin redesigned to reflect the power of the new German Reich. The polarity of column and gate — with the two monuments providing dramatic points of reference for the mass demonstrations so beloved of the Nazis — undoubtedly figured in their calculations. One can well expect both elements to be featured in the televised images of Obama’s mass rally on Thursday.
The original column was inaugurated in 1873 to commemorate the Prussian victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War two years before, as well as earlier Prussian victories over Austria and Denmark. Hence the three rings — each decorated with artillery seized from the defeated nations — making up the original structure.
Detail of captured artillery, the Siegessäule (source: Wikimedia)
As Andreas Schockenhoff of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union pointed out, even just this early history of the monument could be enough to give one doubts about Obama’s choice of venue. “The Berlin Victory Column … is dedicated to the victory over neighbors who are today our European friends and allies,” he told the Sunday edition of the popular German tabloid Bild. “I think the symbolism is unfortunate.”
The point was apparently lost, however, on House majority leader Nancy Pelosi. In conversation with the Berlin daily Die Tagespiegel, Pelosi defended the choice of the Siegessäule by noting that “There are symbolic sites that belong to the whole world.” The French found the symbolism of the column so universal that after the Second World War they wanted to blow it up. They would eventually be satisfied with merely removing the (since restored) bas-reliefs depicting the French humiliation at Sedan.