A Clash of Influences: Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t happen very often—or indeed, ever—that you go somewhere and think “Wow, this place is exactly how I’d mix Ancient Egypt, Star Wars, Tolkien and Heinrich Heine!” The Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the memorial to the 1813 Battle of Leipzig, in a suburban park is just that kind of place.

My knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars has always been a bit patchy: history-teaching in British schools leaves centuries-wide chasms in historical knowledge (1688 to 1914 is just the most scandalous gap) and my university studies of German history started around 1815. It’s only par for the course to find things out that I really should have known; and unless we’re talking about something in War and Peace, Childe Harold or Goya—or the odd reference to Nelson or Wellington—there’s a high chance of it. The Battle of Leipzig (no Tolstoy, no Byron, no Goya, no British) is just one of those.

The battle involved 600,000 soldiers, of whom at least 80,000 died, which makes it (thanks Wikipedia) the largest European battle prior to the First World War. This more than lives up to its standard name in German, the apocalyptic-sounding Völkerschlacht—the unnuanced English translation is the Battle of the Nations.

On the battle’s centenary in 1913, this hulking memorial was opened and as you walk around, you’re struck by its strange and awe-inspiring otherworldliness. Its inside is a hollow stone bell guarded by carved figures of knights in armour. The cupola is covered with row upon row of soldiers on horseback. On the outside the same carved knights watch over the park and beyond. The climb to the top is like a hike through some aerial catacomb. It was used by the Third Reich and GDR governments, and feels like it.

And as I walked around, those influences hit me one after another. Parts made me think of Ancient Egypt and wonder if it was just a coincidence of its construction and the golden ages of Egyptology and Assyriology—just look at Berlin’s museums. Other parts seemed lifted straight from Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings: the Archangel Michael at the base, by the far the most Tolkienesque thing here, was unfortunately under scaffolding.

But it most reminded me of an episode from Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter’s Tale), an 1844 satirical poem by the lyric poet, Heinrich Heine. In it, the poet returns to Hamburg from self-imposed exile in France and lampoons the repression and censorship of Biedermeier Prussia. Somewhere around Münster, he remembers a story his grandmother used to tell about Barbarossa, the 12th-century Holy Roman Emperor, who is waiting under the Kyffhäuser in Thuringia (similar monument there too) ready to save Germany in her hour of need. Later, Heine is dozing and dreams of Barbarossa showing him his Terracotta Army-style knights: but Barbarossa is a senile old man, who underpays his army and whose greatest pride is his still un-moth-eaten flag. And at Heine’s pleas to ride out now, he replies that there’s really no rush, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”: and Heine concludes with this (my translation):

“Old Redbeard,” cried I, “but you are
A fairy tale character.
Go, lie down, sleep, and we will manage
Just as well without ye

And best would be you stayed at home
Here in the old Kyffhäuser
I’ve considered the matter carefully
We don’t even need a Kaiser.”

But Heine’s satire is far from a blueprint for the Völkerschlachtdenkmal; his publication of Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchenearned him an arrest warrant from the King of Prussia. But once Heine had popped into my head and, rather geekily, onto my Kindle, it was impossible to get him out again and all I could see was his dream with Barbarossa.

Update: Since writing this post, I’ve had an earworm of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries

The Heinrich Heine monument in Berlin.

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3 Responses to A Clash of Influences: Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal

  1. Marissa says:

    Interesting how the sleeping king motif keeps cropping up–the Welsh in the Middle Ages thought the same about Arthur, and thought so strongly about it that Edward I dug ‘his’ bones up and reburied them, just to underscore the point that Arthur wasn’t going to be saving anyone after all.

    • Rob says:

      Thanks for the comment! I knew about the Arthur legend but must have heard the “de-Celtificated” version where he comes back to save Britain as a whole. I had no idea about Edward I exhuming him—absolutely fascinating. (I must also get around to reading that book you recommended on him).

      There must be something deeply human about this kind of legend and the idea that your oppressors/ invaders/ neighbours are going to get their just deserts. I guess it also could be linked to salvation in the Abrahamic religions. I had a quick look online and found this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_in_the_mountain The list is really long!

      • Marissa says:

        You raise an interesting point about what it means to be Welsh, instead of British, in relation to Arthur. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, many Welsh thought that Arthur would return not only to lead them, but to drive the English and the Normans back over the sea! Pan-Britishness was definitely a response to their sense of cultural exile.

        These stories also remind me of the 7 Sleepers of Ephesus a little, and of course, the motif of other times and other worlds beneath hillsides is very Celtic. It would be interesting to look at a folklore index, to see how widespread these themes really are!

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