At 125, nationalistic symbol has lost standing in modern Germany

DETMOLD, Germany - Hermann the German has been called this country's Statue of Liberty, but he really doesn't have much in common with his long-lost love across the sea.

She's holding a torch. He hoists a sword. He stands taller - but only because he's perched on a hill.

Most importantly, Liberty stands for the ideals of a nation that welcomes new arrivals passing her on their way to U.S. shores. But Hermann - Germany's most-visited national monument - doesn't stand for much more than a good vantage point as he celebrates his 125th birthday this summer.

Hermann, after all, was dedicated as a monument to German nationalism at a time when that was a unifying concept. Now, it's a pejorative - a catch-phrase of the extreme-right.

It's enough to furrow the green wrinkles in Hermann's copper forehead. He's the Rodney Dangerfield of national monuments - he gets no respect.

It wasn't always like this.

German immigrants to the United States in the 19th century viewed him as a symbol of their newfound liberties and built a scaled-down Hermann in New Ulm, Minn. They formed Sons of Hermann societies to support each other in times of need and gathered to celebrate their German heritage.

The ties are still strong: New Ulm city officials were among the 15,000 well-wishers at the German Hermann's birthday party in August.

Hermann can't really be blamed for his predicament. As his gaze has stared unfalteringly west, the world he views from his vantage point about 75 miles southwest of Hanover is a distinctly different place than 125 years ago.

Nationalism helped foster the idea of a German state in the 19th century when architect and sculptor Joseph Ernst von Bandel conceived of building a monument to his hero. Hermann, the Germanicized version of his Roman name Arminius, led German tribes to their first successful rebellion over Roman overlords in 9 A.D., killing 20,000 somewhere near where he now stands.

Building the 87-foot-tall memorial became Ernst von Bandel's life work. He began in 1838, helped by donations from across Germany and U.S. and British emigres. But by 1846, his money dried up - leaving only the 98-foot foundation.

In the 1860s, Ernst von Bandel won support from Prussian Emperor William I amid Germany's attempts to become one nation and unite fractious cities and regions, and the money poured back in. On Aug. 16, 1875, the emperor dedicated the statue of Hermann der Cherusker, or as he's known in English, Hermann the German.

''It's a symbol, a personification of the nation. Their wish was to become a modern nation like France or Britain,'' said Heide Barmeyer-Hartlied, a historian at University of Hanover specializing in 19th-century German history.

It was a time where German nationalism carried with it notions of liberal thinking, along with freedom from Napoleon's rule. France, then viewed as the archenemy, was the object of Hermann's westward glare.

''When you create a nation-state, you need a hero,'' said Gerhard Ewers, spokesman for the Hermann Memorial Foundation.

But today, nationalism and all its historical trappings are taboo. Getting excited about soccer and waving a team scarf is much more accepted than waving a German flag. German mistakes - not triumphs - are drummed into schoolchildren's heads.

Partly for those reasons, Hermann himself simply doesn't command the respect he once did.

For seven weeks last year, Hermann donned what was claimed to be the world's largest soccer jersey, complete with the local club's insignia. He's been featured in a beer brand logo. Part of the celebration this year was a caricature contest, showing him urinating or his sword being used as a bird perch, TV antenna or a spit for roasting meat.

Hermann's legendary heroism is not why visitors come these days. Mostly it's for the view.

Hermann Jr., the Minnesota incarnation celebrating 103 years Sept. 25, isn't faring much better. New Ulm officials are trying to raise money to straighten his iron frame and reattach the feather that blew off his cap.

And there simply aren't the same number of Hermann enthusiasts around any more to pitch in. Karl Mindermann, a former head of the California branch of Sons of Hermann, said state membership there has declined in the last few decades from 4,000 to 860.

''The younger generation, they're not interested in anything like that anymore,'' said the 70-year-old Sacramento resident, who came to see the original Hermann for the first time this year.

''From the standpoint of music, we still go for the German stuff,'' he said. ''But the younger generation refers to 'the oom-pah music.'''


On the Net: (information in German and English)


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment