Arts

Once taboo monuments now revived in Berlin

The new exhibition "Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments" shows statues that were kept hidden from the public for ages. As symbols of Germany's troubled history, they can now tell their story once more.

Lenin head - Exhibition Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments, Copyright: DW/G. Schließ

From the infamous Lenin monument created by Nikolai Tomsky to Arno Breker's Nazi-era "Decathlete," along with statues of Prussian monarchs adorning a lavish avenue during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II: These monuments were all once banned, spent decades hidden in storage or were even buried. Berlin is bringing them back into the spotlight now.

Through such politically charged statues, the exhibition "Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments" revisits Germany's history from the 18th century up to the country's reunification - a unique concept worldwide, as Andrea Theissen, director of the museum at the Spandau Citadel in Berlin, told DW.

Rocky history

Dealing with such politically influenced monuments from the different eras of Germany's turbulent past has been a thorny challenge for the country: "Such monuments have always been political statements," says Andreas Nachama, director of the Topography of Terror Foundation and academic counselor to the exhibition.

The monuments reveal different dimensions to the ruptures that marked the country's history, moving from the Kingdom of Prussia to the German Empire, followed by the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, up until the division and reunification of Germany.

Exhibition Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments, Copyright: DW/G. Schließ

Kaiser Wilhelm financed a series of marble monuments to adorn the Tiergarten boulevard called "Victory Avenue"

While monuments pertaining to different eras of French history were always left standing in Paris, they were regularly removed in Berlin.

The most spectacular example for this mindset can be found in the huge Lenin monument in Berlin. Nikolai Tomsky's statue was unveiled on April 19, 1970, during a major ceremony attended by over 200,000 people. After the Fall of the Wall, many monuments of East Berlin were torn down; the Lenin statue was broken to pieces and buried in a forest.

Andrea Theissen remembers the controversy surrounding the decision at the time: "I believe that politicians think differently now. They would deal with something like that differently today," says the museum director.

Fallen idea with remaining monuments

According to Theissen, instead of dismantling and hiding the monuments it would have been more appropriate to keep them up and publicly discuss their role and symbolism. She says that even today, "endless debates" surrounded the decision to integrate the Lenin statue in the exhibition.

Exhibition Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments, Copyright: DW/G. Schließ

King Frederick William II reunited with Queen Louise

Lenin's uncovered head nevertheless managed to become one of the highlights of the exhibition. Another major attraction is the set of statues commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II to adorn the Siegesallee (also known as Victory Avenue) in Berlin's Tiergarten.

The exhibition also includes 70 of the 96 monuments that were built for the "World Capital Germania" - Adolf Hitler's megalomaniac vision of a renewed Berlin, as planned by his architect Albert Speer. Many of these statues were left scarred by bullet holes and have missing limbs, damaged during the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

Along with the political symbolism of these official monuments, other sculptures in the exhibition display touching tributes to intimacy, such as the statue of King Frederick William III, depicted mourning his dead wife, the extremely popular Queen Louise. Her monument is displayed right next to him in the exhibition.

Exhibition Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments, Copyright: DW/G. Schließ

"Monument for Fallen Railway Men" commemorates the events of World War I, as was typical in the Weimar Republic

Similarly touching, Emil Cauer's 1928 "Monument for Fallen Railway Men" shows a strong man kneeling, lost in thought, and completely withdrawn. During the Weimar Republic, many such monuments were set up throughout Berlin to commemorate the more than two million German soldiers killed during World War I.

Now revived in this one-of-a-kind exhibition, politics, history and emotion all meet in these monuments, which once were considered disreputable but can now, detached from their historic context, perhaps provide some overlooked glimpses into the human condition.

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