Hans A. Pohlsander: National Monuments and Nationalism in 19th Century Germany (= Neue Deutsch-Amerikanische Studien; Bd. 31), Frankfurt a.M. [u.a.]: Peter Lang 2008, 309 S., 65 Ill., ISBN 978-3-03911-352-1, EUR 70,60
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German national monuments have attracted serious scholarly attention for just over forty years. Since Thomas Nipperdey published his foundational essay on the subject in 1968, numerous studies have appeared. Some range widely over time and type, while others focus on specific structures. Much research is guided by an interest in the construction and contestation of German national identity in the nineteenth century.
More recently, national monuments have featured within the large body of scholarship exploring the intersections of public memory and history that extends to popular media, fiction and film. Rudy Koshar, for example, has turned to monuments as a means of exploring Germany's memory landscapes.
As Hans Pohlsander notes, a relatively small amount of the most important scholarship on Germany's national monuments is in English. Consequently, he sees the purpose of his book as providing "an intelligent reader's guide" (7) for those with little or no knowledge of the German language. The book ranges widely over large, freestanding monuments built in public places throughout Germany, and includes one chapter on painting.
The first chapter begins by enumerating criteria for defining truly national monuments as opposed to those with local or regional pretensions and significance. The author's discussion of these criteria is clear, concise and devoid of theoretical complication. Focusing principally on subject and intention, Pohlsander attempts to posit an essential definition that escapes the vagaries of changing interpretation. In this respect, his approach differs from that of Nipperdey and Reinhard Alings, whose criterion for defining a national monument relied principally on how the statue or structure was received, instead of the properties intrinsic to it. The first chapter also includes a brief, but circumspect discussion of the nature of monuments in their creation and function.
The following three chapters are devoted to a history of cultural and political nationalism in the German lands from the beginning of the nineteenth century until unification in 1871. The remaining seven chapters are organized thematically and discuss individual monuments mostly arranged in chronological order by date of completion. The chapters bear such titles as "Monuments to German Culture," "Monuments to German Arms," and "The Iron Chancellor".
The book offers a litany of names, titles, and dates, or the requisite information essential to any reader's guide. Indeed, the text often reads like a guidebook in style and substance. Several passages suffer from poor syntax and give the impression of having been hastily composed. Many entries are perfunctory and dryly written; at one point, the author even suggests a tour route for the Walhalla (136; 139), while in other places he provides museum inventory numbers (186).
Furthermore, several minor oversights and omissions will frustrate readers new to the subject: there are a number of places in which German and Latin words and phrases, however sparing, are not translated (52; 101; 180; 203); the author neglects to explain the Greek architectural terminology that he employs (133); there is no discussion of why the Brandenburg Gate was built (175); and no explanation is offered of the difference between a Mahnmal and a Denkmal (188). Nonetheless, readers will find necessary detail on the most important national monuments and, occasionally, interesting discussion of the fate these monuments endured in the years between their completion and the present day (166, 172f).
The illustrations essential to such a work are keyed to the text and mostly of good quality although the Paulskirche could be more completely illustrated and a better photo of the Kyffhäuser monument provided. An index makes the work easy to use. But the book's real strength resides in the fact that it is extensively researched and footnoted, and readers familiar with German will find an array of literature through which to pursue their interest in a particular monument, issue or theme.
However, despite these strengths, the book suffers from several deficiencies both as a reader's guide and a work of scholarship. The three chapters devoted to German nationalism are perfunctory overviews that offer little detail. There is no chapter devoted to an analysis of German nationalism after 1871. Discussion of complex issues and events often tends toward the simplified and reveals little of the more sophisticated and nuanced interpretations of recent scholarship. Speaking of the German Confederation, for example, the author states that "all of Germany was like a prison" (73). A discussion of German unification concludes that "The German question had been decided by the iron will of one man" (100). The "general observations" that the author provides in the chapter entitled "Monuments to German Culture" either lack significant insight or enumerate issues that have not been sufficiently explored in the body of the text (124). Indeed, explanation of the manner in which nationalism was expressed in literature, music and architecture often reads like a checklist with very limited critical interpretation. Strangely, the author devotes space to tangents on Arminius and monuments to Queen Luise, for example, which lend little to his particular discussion (148ff and184ff).
More seriously, analysis of the monuments themselves is limited and tends toward the elementary. There is little detailed explanation of symbolism and iconography. Although the author raises interesting questions concerning the issue of style, there is almost no discussion concerning the significance of its choice for particular monuments (134; 176). Pohlsander occasionally raises more substantive questions - for instance about whether Bismarck towers and columns built after the First World War express continued loyalty to the monarchy and a rejection of the Weimar Republic - but these are left unexplored in any detail (218).
Unfortunately, many monuments are simply listed, and this is especially the case in the chapter entitled "Historicizing Painting of the 19th Century." This is the most unsatisfactory chapter of the book; the first half is comprised simply of a list of important works, while the rest of the chapter is devoted mostly to an elementary analysis of the work of Hermann Wislicenus in the Kaiserpfalz at Goslar. The chapter concludes with an awkwardly placed, one-paragraph "Excursus" on the group of painters known as the Nazarenes.
Pohlsander often expresses his distaste for the aesthetic, as well as the message of particular monuments such as the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig. Nevertheless, he is clearly committed to their preservation and their role as historical documents. At one point he quotes the Social Democratic politician, Ilse Brusis, saying "we must confront each epoch of our history and engage with it even and especially when we internally reject it. It serves no good purpose to remove the external symbols" (203). But without forgetting the book's limited ambitions as a reader's guide, this reader was disappointed that it did not amount to more than a work of documentation. Unfortunately, the author does not deal with issues that currently characterize much scholarship on national monuments - such as national identity and memory - in any sophisticated way.
Ultimately, the book provides many of the basics for those unfamiliar with the history of German nationalism and national monuments. This is, in itself, an important accomplishment. But it offers little that is new or stimulating to scholars of German history.