Bismarck Towers - A Rash Of Monuments Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Bismarck Towers - A Rash Of Monuments

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Many things are named after Fürst Otto von Bismarck1, Minister-President of Prussia, Chancellor of the North German Confederation, and finally, first Chancellor of the newly-unified German Empire. He lends his name to countless schools and streets, numerous ships, a district of Gelsenkirchen, Germany, at least five towns in the USA and one in Canada, a sea, an archipelago, and a mountain range belonging to New Guinea, mountains in Zimbabwe and Namibia, the Antarctic Bismarck Strait, and, until World War I, a mountain and a town in Australia. The name has been used for a locomotive, a bicycle factory, a coal mine, a brand of mineral water, an anime series, a satirical radio programme, and a brand of grain schnapps. You can eat Bismarck as a type of apple or a kind of pickled herring, or drink him as the German version of the Black Velvet cocktail, half stout, half champagne.

However, perhaps the strangest symbols of the Bismarck worship that swept the young German nation are the Bismarck towers, tall monuments built with the express purpose of honouring his name - and showing that one was a loyal German wherever one happened to live. From 1869 to 1934, these towers spread like towels across the sun loungers of the world, with 240 built in ten different countries on four continents, and over 170 more planned.

Memorials to Bismarck

If you want to honour someone, erect a statue of him.

That's exactly what Bismarck's loyal followers did. Until the founding of the first German nation-state, the German Empire, in 1871, Germany was divided into hundreds of tiny principalities, free cities, and other autonomous regions, and Bismarck was hailed as the Schmied des Deutschen Reiches, the smith who had forged them into a whole. These memorials range from simple plaques to elaborate arrangements of sculptures, from a stone obelisk erected in 18682 to a giant3 statue on the banks of the Elbe in Hamburg. They were found as close as the German capital of Berlin and as far afield as Madang, capital of the colony Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land, now Papua New Guinea. After the third Kaiser of the German Empire, Wilhelm II, dismissed Bismarck in 1890, more monuments began to spring up almost overnight as the Bismarck hysteria grew, with special committees formed to decide how best to honour him. Poems and songs were written, paintings were made, and he received an honorary citizenship in many cities - including every city in Baden, one of the states that formed the empire. A bust of Bismarck was even added to the Walhalla4, a hall of fame for important Germans conceived by Ludwig I of Bavaria.

The Development of the Bismarckturm

If you want to honour someone, erect a statue of him. But what if you really want to honour him?

More and more, the statues were left unbuilt in favour of a curious new phenomenon - the Bismarckturm. 15 of these commemorative towers were erected during Bismarck's lifetime, some stone, some wood - but nearly all erected in prominent places and used as viewing platforms.

The idea really took off in 1898, the year of Bismarck's death - which had caused another resurgence in his popularity. On 3 December, the Deutsche Studentenschaft, a nationalistic democratic5 student organisation, announced an architectural design competition for a 'column' to be built in numerous places, under the motto 'Flammen über ganz Deutschland zu Ehren Bismarcks' - 'flames over all of Germany to honour Bismarck'. The rules were simple:

  • The structure and form were left entirely to the designer.

  • The upper part was to accommodate a brazier or a platform on which to build a bonfire.

  • The material to be used was 'the hardest weatherproof German granite'.

  • It was to be erected 'on a towering height, far from other buildings'.

  • The cost was not to exceed 20,000 Marks for a ten-metre column.

  • The design of the tower was to be executable in a variety of sizes6 to suit different budgets.

  • Designs were to be submitted no later than 1 April, 1899.

  • Instead of the usual monetary prize, the first ten places were to be recognised with a simple wreath of wrought-iron oak leaves.

Competition was fierce, and national pride ran high - the titles of many designs sound ridiculous or even slightly ominous to modern, post-war ears:

  • Deutsch bis ins Mark - German to the core

  • Dem deutschesten Deutschen - To the most German of Germans

  • Dem, der in Not und Gefahr Thatenbringer, Retter war - To him who in distress and danger was doer of deeds and saviour

  • Für ihn, für uns, für sie - For him, for us, for them

  • Schwarz-weiß-rot - Black and white and red7

  • Burschen heraus! - Lads, go forth!

  • Keiner war wohl treuer, reiner,
    Näher stand dem König keiner,
    Doch dem Volke schlug sein Herz
    - None was more loyal, purer,
    None was closer to the king,
    But his heart beat for the people

A jury of prominent architects judged the 317 submissions and finally chose ten winners, with four designs especially honoured. The top three of these - Götterdämmerung, Eroika, and Wuotan, were designed by the same architect, Wilhelm Kreis, the fourth, Altar, by Willy Fränkel. Götterdämmerung was finally declared the archetypical Bismarck tower, an oversized column with a square base and shaft, its edges softened by 3/4 round pilasters supporting the architrave, and a cornice surrounding the square capital that housed a viewing platform and fire bowl.

47 of the 240 towers actually built used this design, though many of the other submissions were also executed at least once. Even while the competition was in progress, the organising committee sent out 50,000 letters across the entire nation, to every mayor of a city with more than 5,000 inhabitants, to politicians and to various organisations, proposing the building of Bismarck towers and even detailing the projected costs involved. By the time the committee met in Würzburg on 23 January, 1899, barely six weeks after the call for designs and long before a winner was chosen, nearly all German university towns had declared their intention to build a memorial tower, as had Metz, Hagen, Kirn an der Nahe, Birnbaum, Lüdenscheid, Düsseldorf, Gelsenkirchen, Cologne, Godesberg, Norderney, Moers, Iserlohn, Hildesheim, Erfurt and Meiningen. About one hundred cities had already formed planning committees.

Political Repercussions

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the strange phenomenon that is the Bismarck tower - and the best evidence that this was not mere patriotism, but veneration of the former chancellor - is that the government was not involved in their building on more than a municipal level, while monuments to the newly-forged German Empire, various war heroes, and the Emperor himself were encouraged, planned, and funded by the imperial government. Rather than taxes, the money for Bismarck towers was raised through voluntary donations, and each city did its own planning, deciding on its own design, style, budget, and location. Besides being a monument to honour the founding father of the newly-united nation, each tower was also an expression of the city's identity, many becoming emblematic landmarks in their own right, proudly shown to visitors and printed on postcards.

And so it comes as no surprise that each of the Bismarcktürme is slightly different, though based on a common ideal. For the most part, the towers were built of stone, though usually the local stone was used in lieu of granite. Others experimented with wood, iron, and a relatively new material, reinforced concrete. Most were built in a historicising, heavy, monumental style; others are light strutworks not ashamed to show their constructive details - the tallest tower, standing 50m, was a sort of wooden Eiffel tower in Wiesbaden, Hessia. Some were relatively modest pillars; others, tall, hollow spires with stairs leading up to a viewing platform. A few frugal communities simply re-named existing towers. Of the 240 built, 167 could have fires lit on them; some, like the ones in Elberfeld and Hagen, used Bengal fire; another, in Mülheim an der Ruhr, was illuminated electrically. Of the approximately 70% that could be set aflame, not all could agree on a date - according to various local customs, fires were built on Bismarck's birthday, at summer solstice, on the anniversary of Bismarck's death, and on Sedanstag8, or simply during the town's celebrations.

And yet, despite all the little regional differences, the concerted effort across the empire, the recurring motif of the Bismarck tower, itself a symptom of the widespread Bismarck mania, helped to unify the young nation. Germany had previously consisted of hundreds of smaller states, many of them bitter rivals, and the common purpose helped to give the German people a sense of national rather than regional identity. An example: Barmen and Elberfeld, two of the cities that were united in 1929 to form Wuppertal, had been in competition9 since the Middle Ages, ruled first by rivalling noble families and then by France and Prussia respectively. In 1904, both had grown into wealthy industrial centres. Realising that overcoming their rivalry and pooling their resources meant that they could build a bigger, better tower, the planning committees from Elberfeld and Barmen declared a truce by erecting a joint tower based on Götterdämmerung in a park separating the two cities10.

Of course, this particular form of national pride grated on the nerves of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He, not Bismarck, was the head of state - in fact, he had dismissed Bismarck from service himself! He was jealous of the former chancellor's popularity, and attempted rather unsuccessfully to encourage a more monarch-oriented form of nationalism, giving his grandfather11, Wilhelm I, the byname 'the Great', and ordering monuments, including towers, to be built in his memory. At least, he was able to harness the Bismarck hysteria for his own imperialistic ends...

The Sun Never Sets on the Bismarck Towers

German explorers throughout the world named geographic features after Bismarck. Settlers named their towns after him - and erected Bismarck towers across the globe, mostly in German colonies like present-day Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. Though the Empire had been formed on the basis of the kleindeutsche Lösung12, the 'lesser German solution', Germany was 50% larger before the first World War than it is now, and towers in Poland13, the Czech Republic, Russia, Denmark, and France stand on what was German territory when they were built. Others, like the ones in Austria and Chile14, are harder to explain, usually erected by enthusiastic expatriates.

Though most of the towers were built at the end of the 19th Century, the trend survived the Great War, the revolution, the dissolution of the Empire and the formation of the Weimar Republic, with the last Bismarck tower not built until 1934. Bismarck hysteria in Germany has since died down. Though influential, he is no longer seen as such a shining and saintly figure. Inflation in the 1920s put a stop to building fires on the towers, though some towns may still revive the custom for celebrations - but as a local tradition rather than to honour Bismarck. Today, 172 Bismarcktürme and Bismarcksäulen15 still stand, in various states of repair, in Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, and Austria - even in Cameroon and Chile. Though anachronistic, they document an important piece of German history - and they're a handy place to take your visitors for a good view over the city.

1Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1 April, 1815 – 30 July, 1898).2Before the unification of Germany, this memorial was meant to honour Bismarck for his instrumental role in the formation of the North German Confederation, the precursor to the German Empire.314.8 metres high, or 34.3 counting the base.4The Walhalla is housed in a neo-classical building designed by Leo von Klenze and stands high above the Danube River near Regensburg, in Bavaria, Germany. The men and women honoured there cover nearly 2000 years of German history, from Arminius, victorious general at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest against the Romans in 9 AD, to Sophie Scholl, a member of the White Rose, a nonviolent resistance movement against the Nazi regime. She and her brother were executed on charges of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets. It includes busts and plaques commemorating scientists, politicians, authors, and even fighters - anyone considered to have done something extraordinary for the Germanic countries.5Which was, unfortunately, later radicalised and incorporated into the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, the student branch of the NSDAP (the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or National Socialist Workers' Party - the Nazis).6The most expensive tower to be built, that in Szczecin/Stettin, Poland, cost the princely sum of 200,000 Marks.7A reference to the colours of the flag of the German Empire.8The national holiday of the German Empire, commemorating the Prussian victory at the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war, in which Napoleon III was captured.9Friedrich Engels, who was born in Barmen, was a true Lokalpatriot - he wrote of the Wupper River valley that its shape reflected its inhabitants, with the narrow minds of the people in narrow Vohwinkel and Elberfeld gradually broadening as one moved the few kilometres up the river to Barmen.10Just up the mountainside from the courthouse, which had to be built on an island in the centre of the river to be neutral.11His father, Friedrich III, was emperor for a mere 99 days before he died of throat cancer.12Two models for a German nation-state, 'Kleindeutschland' and 'Großdeutschland' were discussed by the Frankfurt Parliament in 1848. While 'Small Germany', the model that was eventually accepted, consisted of all the members of the German Confederation, led by Prussia, 'Greater Germany' would have encompassed all lands occupied by linguistically and culturally 'German' people, including Austria, and would have been led by the Austrian Empire. Religious, cultural, and political differences prevented this solution, compounded by the fact that Austria would have had to sever its ties with Hungary and split the Austrian Empire in two.13Present-day Poland alone had 40 towers, 17 of which still stand.14It was built by the 'Bund deutscher Turnvereine in Chile', a coalition of German expatriate gymnastics groups.15Bismarck columns.

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