The Transformation of German Legacy via the Berlin Victory Column

A monument that embodies the transformation of Germany itself

Though it doesn’t tower over the skyline of Berlin like the Berlin Television Tower, the Berlin Victory Column, aka the Victory Column, aka Berlin Siegessäule, can still be seen from quite a distance. It is a monument that has a history directly and indirectly connected to the city of Berlin and nation of Germany. It has also created a definitive economic impact on the region, but that influence is secondary to a legacy that embodies the transformation of Germany itself.

On account of the Victory Column’s association with the German Empire as well as with the National Socialists, it has come to symbolize the depths militarism can lead to as well as the heights it can take a people and nation. In this way, it is tied to past and present of the nation, all of which convey the kind of monumentous cultural and economic influence that a structure of this type can achieve.

A Celebration of German Victory

Originally commissioned to celebrate Prussia’s victory in the Second Schleswig War against Denmark which took place in 1864, subsequent victories in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 gave the monument a whole new purpose. Victory in what became known as the Wars of German Unification inspired the addition of a sculpture of Victoria, the ancient goddess of victory, at the top of the column. The Victory Column was completed in 1873, and served as the first national monument in the newly formed German Empire.

The monument originally stood in Königsplatz (today the Platz der Republik), very close to the Reichstag Building. The National Socialist government (aka the Nazis) dismantled and moved the column almost a mile to its current location. Another cylinder block was added to the column during this period, which increased the height of the monument to 220 feet (67 meters).

Miraculously surviving the bombing raids of World War II, there were calls to see the Victory Column demolished. For some, the celebration of German military victories was tied too closely to the atrocities of German militarism. Those calls were ultimately vetoed, and restoration began in the mid 1950s and continued until the 1980s. The most recent restoration work saw the completion of the tunnels that surround the column and provide pedestrian access to it.

Barack Obama delivered a speech on the steps of the Victory Column in 2008 before he was elected President of the United States, which re-established the Victory Column as a German landmark and international tourist destination. Much of that has to do with the experience of not only seeing the Victory Column, but of what it means to climb to the top of its 285 steps.

View from the top of the Victory Column

Around, Inside and Up Top of the Victory Column

The journey up to the viewing platform of the Victory Column begins with a display focused on a variety of German National Monuments as well as monuments across the world. Models of the Victory Column itself along with models of monuments such as the Battle of Nations, the Lion’s Mount, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty are arranged throughout the base of the Victory Column, which viewers go through before beginning the ascent up the stairs.

The foundation of the monument is adorned with four bronze reliefs, which depict the Wars of German Unification as well as the victorious marching of the troops into Berlin in 1871. Above the pedestal and reliefs is a circular mosaic of glass fragments, which depicts an allegorical battle involving figures such as Germania and soldiers from the four kingdoms of Saxony, Bavaria, Prussia and Württemberg.

The entire column, including the sculpture, is 220 feet tall. Located in the heart of Tiergarten Park, which is a short walk from the Reichstag Building and Brandenburg Gate, the viewing platform of the Victory Column provides a panoramic view across Tiergarten Park and the majority of Berlin itself.

There are simply no other views of the city like the ones available at the top of the Victory Column. With the statue of Victoria staring down, viewers can look to the east to see the Brandenburg Gate, or simply to the surrounding Großer Tiergarten, which is Berlin’s largest and oldest park. Just being up at the top of the column is enough for most viewers though, and it provides them with the opportunity to see the city from a totally new perspective.

Getting to the Berlin Victory Column itself requires going through the underground tunnels that were completed in 2011. The tunnels are closed in the evening, but are accessible even when the viewing platform and interior of the Victory Column is not. That accessibility along with the fee charged to enter the column is just part of the economic impact that the Victory Column has enabled.

Direct and Indirect Sources of Revenue

A ticket is required to enter the Victory Column, which begins with the tour of the monuments and ends with the viewing platform of the Column. Hours of accessibility vary by the time of year as well as a nominal fee, but this charge is insignificant when compared to the other ways the Victory Column is able to generate revenue.

Advertising for a variety of events and organizations are displayed on and around the Victory Column, and take the form of banners, lawn advertisements and even light displays. These advertisements vary from promotions for marathons to car companies to city initiatives. These adverts don’t interfere with the positioning of the Victory Column itself, and in many cases go unnoticed by tourists. The residents who see the monument on a much more frequent basis are more likely to understand and act upon these messages.

Those residents have also come to utilize the Victory Column as a place to gather for festivals as well as Berlin’s annual New Year’s Eve celebrations. Doing so provides organizers and the city with a definitive location to connect with their audience and run these events in a safe and productive manner.

Tours of the Victory Column and trips out to it are part of the offering for many tourist companies that operate throughout Berlin. Large buses of tourists are brought out to a location near the monument where they can then make their way through the tunnels. The Victory Column is an important offering for many of these companies, and logistics associated with viewing it along with a variety of other nearby locations helps these companies offer a valuable service.

The Victory Column is one of the more popular attractions that is displayed on postcards, magnets, t-shirts and plenty more. These items include ones that are available at a variety of tourist shops, but the monument has also become part of the culture to a point that it’s incorporated into items that aren’t merely appealing to tourists. In this way, it’s the monument that has permeated German culture in an especially important manner.

berlin victory columnBridging the Past and Present of German Culture

The push to dismantle the Victory Column at the conclusion of World War II was not without conceptual merit. As a monument built to celebrate German military victory, many saw the Column as the representation of an ideology that nearly destroyed the country and the continent. Being able to effectively determine what it means to celebrate military victory without taking the concept too far is a balancing act the country continues to work through to this day. The Victory Column is the personification of this endeavor.

The destruction of the Victory Column would not have negated the efforts of the nation to come to terms with what it meant to have the Nazi Party as a part of its history, and that fact undoubtedly influenced the decision to leave it stand. Doing so allowed the Victory Column to become and even celebrate the history of the nation that wasn’t focused on a chapter so many were not proud of. The monument came to represent an important aspect of history rather than anything else.

Monuments have come to symbolize important principles like these just as easily as they do far more trivial concepts, but the physical details of any monument are less important than the fact that these physical symbols exist for residents and tourists alike. What’s more is that each can interact with monuments like the Victory Column in whatever way they wish. A look across the city will allow someone to see the monument, and that can be as much of an experience as they have with it. Of course, ascending those 285 steps and looking across the city make for a far more personal experience, which is one that residents and visitors alike can have. Doing so has influenced how both groups of people have come to see and understand the city.

That influence is more powerful than it’s ever been because it’s come to signify something deeper. Just as the Victory Column today is more about the history of the nation than it is a testament to military victory, the transformative power that it represents is impacting the future.

Embodying the Legacy of a Nation

The transformation of the Victory Column from a commemoration of Prussia’s victories and unification into one that is about something far more universal is an important one, especially in light of German laws that make it illegal to display symbols of unconstitutional organizations. Some of those banned symbols are ones the National Socialist party used, which means this transition is not merely about sensibilities.

Some might always see the monument as a testament to the dark place unrestrained military ambition can bring a nation, which just makes direct and indirect attempts to transform the monument that much more important. It’s a transformation that isn’t as literal as the transformation other monuments have undergone, but it’s one that might be even more significant in light of what the monument means to people both aware and unaware of the history of the monument.

The historical significance of the Victory Column isn’t readily apparent to tourists, and that fact allows the monument to take an important position in the past and present of the nation. For anyone who is inclined to understand how and why the monument has come to represent the transition of the nation, more than enough information is available. For anyone who simply wants to get an amazing look at the city as well as a picture out in front of a monumentous structure, the opportunity to do so is easily realized.

Today, the Victory Column is seen by many in the context of history rather than militarism, and that fact is an important part of a transition for the nation as a whole. As Germany gets that much further away from the Nazi period, the cultural relevance of a monument that has shaped that transition will only continue to grow. Coupled with the very real economic opportunities the monument has helped enable, few will be able to argue about the legacy this monument embodies for the entire nation.

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Jeremiah Karpowicz

Jeremiah Karpowicz always envisioned a career as a screenwriter, but found the autonomy and freedom he was looking for in the digital space. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. Get in touch with him on Twitter.