Changing symbolism – DW – 09/02/2023

There she stands, gleaming as on the first day: Victoria, the golden goddess of victory, enthroned on the Berlin Victory Column, which German emperor Wilhelm I inaugurated on September 2, 1873, after some eight years of construction. The court architect Heinrich Strack was responsible for the planning and construction of this “National Monument to the Wars of Unification”; the figure of Victoria with laurel wreath and Prussian eagle on the helmet was created by the sculptor Friedrich Drake.

The Victory Column, around 1930, at its original location in a black-and-white image.
The Victory Column, around 1930, at its original locationImage: picture alliance / akg-images

After the wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870), which were called the “Wars of German Unification,” Wilhelm I, already King of Prussia since 1861, was proclaimed head of the German Empire in Versailles in 1871.

Wilhelm had already commissioned the construction of the Victory Column after the victory over Denmark in 1864.

The day of its unveiling marked the third anniversary of the French surrender — Sedan Day.

The Battle of Sedan took place during the Franco-Prussian War from September 1-2, 1870, which resulted in the capture of Emperor Napoleon II and his thousands of troops, effectively deciding the war in favor of Prussia.

Black-and-white aerial view shows the Victory Column opposite the Reichstag, completed in 1894.
This aerial view shows the Victory Column opposite the Reichstag, completed in 1894Image: akg-images/picture alliance

At the time of its construction, the Victory Column stood about one and a half kilometers (about a mile) away from its current location on Königsplatz, now Platz der Republik.

It was erected on Siegesallee in front of the Raczynski Palace that housed the art collection of the Polish count and diplomat Atanazy Raczynski. The building was designed by the Victory Column architect Heinrich Strack. The palace was ultimately demolished, and, beginning in the mid-1880s, the new Reichstag building was erected and completed in 1894.

Aerial view of Tiergarten, with the Victory Column in the middle.
The Nazis moved the Victory Column to the Tiergarten in 1939Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Link

The Victory Column stood in the way of the plans of Nazi architect Albert Speer. For the “World Capital Germania” envisioned by the National Socialists, a huge congress hall was to be built in its place.

So, in 1939, “Viktoria” — who crowns the Victory Column — had to move to her present location at the Grosser Stern in the Tiergarten. There, the column was enlarged by another drum from just under 60 to now around 67 meters (197 to 220 feet).

Mosaic under the platform of Berlin's Victory Column.
Magnificent decorations testify to the self-importance of the German EmpireImage: Eßling/IMAGO

Gilded cannon barrels that were taken from war booty, relief depictions symbolizing the grandeur and superiority of the Empire, and a goddess of victory that even the Nazis knew how to appropriate: no wonder the demolition of the Victory Column was up for debate after World War II. Polish soldiers, unaware of its significance, later regretted not having blown up the monument. The French occupation forces did request the demolition of the Victory Column, but the Americans and British voted against it, while the Soviet Union abstained.

Full moon behind a close-up of the Victory Column in Berlin.
Berlin locals nickname her ‘Goldelse’Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Berliners quickly disbanded with the historical symbolism of the Victory Column, taking away a bit of the grandeur of the goddess of victory by giving it the nickname “Goldelse” (the equivalent of “Golden Lizzy”), which still persists in the vernacular.

Today, the monument is particularly popular with tourists.

But, that’s no wonder, as the platform at a height of 51 meters offers an impressive panoramic view of the city. Along the Strasse des 17. Juni (Boulevard of June 17), one looks toward the Brandenburg Gate, which also showcases an image of Victoria, looking toward the east.

Black-and-white image of the Victory Column.
The Victory Column plays a significant role in Wim Wenders’ ‘Wings of Desire’ film from 1987Image: Captital Pictures/picture alliance

In 1987, German film director Wim Wenders sent Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as guardian angels into the heaven over Berlin, in the film “Wings of Desire.” The Victory Column plays a central role, from which actor Bruno Ganz as the angel Damiel looks down on the then still divided city — and wants to throw himself down to become an earthly being.

Once the Berlin Wall collapsed, Wenders followed his film up with a sequel in 1993, “In weiter Ferne, so nah!” (“Faraway, So Close!”)

 Victory Column in the background, with thousands of people in the foreground of the Rave the Planet festival.
Today, the Victory Column shines over the Rave the Planet parade, such as here in July 2023Image: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Since the mid-1990s, the “Goldelse” has been in the midst of the hustle and bustle once a year: the Love Parade traditionally holds its final rally at the Grosser Stern in the Tiergarten, at the foot of the Victory Column. Its successor, Rave the Planet, and Christopher Street Day pride parade also pass by here. And, Barack Obama drew crowds here for a speech in 2008, shortly before he was elected US president.

This article was originally written in German.


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