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.
Before being moved to its current location, the column was located in the front of the Reichstag. Hitler and Speer not only had it moved, but, in keeping with the Nazi sense of grandeur, they also added a fourth ring to bring it up to its present stately height of nearly seventy meters. One can wonder whether Obama and his handlers would have found the original stubbier version of the column a suitably impressive backdrop.
The stubby version of the Victory Column in a historical postcard (source: Wikimedia)
In addition, Speer enlarged the pre-existing boulevard connecting the Brandenburg Gate in the East and the then Adolf-Hitler-Platz (today, Theodor-Heuss-Platz) in the West. The street enlargement was likewise in keeping with the generalized megalomania that characterized Hitler’s and Speer’s plans for Berlin. But it was also undertaken in order to be able better to accommodate the military parades that were supposed to roll down this “Via Triumphalis.”
The entire ensemble would be inaugurated on April 20, 1939, the 50th birthday of the Führer, with a massive display of German military might including a parade of troops and army hardware and an accompanying air show. Just over four months later, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe would commence the German Blitzkrieg against Poland, thus beginning the Second World War.
The Führer’s Birthday: Adolf Hitler reviews the troops with the Victory Column in the background and in front of tens of thousands of cheering spectators.
From Heinrich Hoffman’s book Ein Volk Ehrt Seinen Führer [A Nation Honors its Führer]. Original caption: “The parade begins: a tremendous demonstration of military might and determination. Here comes the Führer!”
It should perhaps be added that the decision to hold the Obama speech at the Siegessäule reflects not only upon the candidate, but also, of course, upon his German hosts. Chancellor Merkel and some other Christian Democrats, as well as members of the opposition Free Democratic Party, have made clear their reservations about the extravagance of Obama’s Berlin plans. But it has been equally clear that the other half of Germany’s political spectrum — as embodied by the Social Democratic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit — has largely embraced or even encouraged these plans.
Given Obama’s unfamiliarity with Berlin, it is indeed more conceivable that the idea of using the Siegessäule as backdrop was suggested to the Senator and his advisors by their Social Democratic friends than that they hit upon it by themselves.
The author would like to thank Prof. Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College for providing the above photograph of the Hitler “birthday celebration.” Prof. Bytwerk’s extensive online archive of Nazi propaganda materials can be consulted here.