Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Hail to Thee in the Wreath of Victory"

Old postcard showing the center of Berlin with the Berliner Dom and the Stadtschloss (Imperial Palace).

The Berliner Dom (The Protestant Cathedral of Berlin) from a postcard made soon after its consecration in 1905

The Berliner Dom in 1945

The Berliner Dom in 2006

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching German Modernism from Kaiser Bill to Schickelgruber (1892 - 1937) is to look at a society where art meant far more than a high end consumer item or a status trophy. I suppose that is a selfish pleasure, but a real one.

Everyone covered in this course from artists to dictators took the whole business of fine art very seriously, beginning with Kaiser Wilhelm II himself (he even took painting lessons). He was one of the most ambitious art patrons of the 20th century. He wanted to rebuild Berlin from the Prussian royal capital to the capital of the new German Empire. He also wanted to use art to help forge a sense of German national identity.
Germany was a unified country only since 1870 and the victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War. The idea of a German national identity (as opposed to a Bavarian, or Saxon, or Prussian, or Hessian, etc. identity) only began with the Napoleonic occupation of German lands at the beginning of the 19th century. The Kaiser needed art and architecture to proclaim a new German identity that transcended all the earlier local loyalties. He especially wanted to proclaim the supremacy of Prussia. Germany was united under Prussian domination.

The Berliner Dom was the Kaiser's single largest project in his building campaign in Berlin. He tore down a much smaller Baroque church, and built this huge building with a dome that originally was 381 feet high. He intended it to rival in size and grandeur Catholic St, Peter's in Rome. He intended it to be a colossal testimony to the Hohenzollern dynasty's nearly 500 years of support for the Protestant cause. It stands in what was once the center of the city, formerly across Unter Den Linden (Berlin's main street) from the old Stadtschloss, the imperial palace. It was the embodiment of the Kaiser's claim to legitimate authority from God and history. It was a huge proclamation of his determination to continue the ancient feudal hierarchy in a rapidly modernizing industrial country.

There's not much that's religious in this monument (apart from the glued on Christian symbols and images). There's a lot that's triumphalist and imperial starting with the big Roman triumphal arch that forms the entrance. It's a huge incoherent pile of grandeur intended to reflect the taste of the arrogant, reckless, and incurious monarch who ordered it built. It's a foretaste of the grandiloquence of 20th century tyrants to come. To me, it looks less like a Lutheran hymn, and more like the opening line of the old Prussian anthem "Hail to Thee in the wreath of Victory!"

This monument is worth pondering in the current campaigns to soften and blur the divide between church and state in the United States.

The Berliner Dom was badly damaged by Allied incendiary bombs in 1945. The Stadtschloss across the street was completely destroyed in the bombing, and its remains were bulldozed by the East German government. The Dom was left mostly vacant with a temporary roof to preserve what was left of the interior. The East German government rebuilt its dome on a more modest scale in 1975, and the new reunited German government completed a restoration of the original 1905 interior (as much as possible) in 2003.


Anonymous said...

I can only imagine what Bonhoeffer would have said about this. Scary stuff. I'm thinking "Palin".

Anonymous said...


But the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns were Calvinist from at least 1608...

The same goes for Sweden, which is why Brandenburg and Sweden are the only 2 countries where there was a separate Calvínist Court Parish, whereas in France royal children were baptised in the local parish.

Brandenburg, Preussia, Eastern Pomerania were Lutheran, however, but Berlin tried to change that from the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia onwards, claiming (misrepresenting) that under the Treaty the Prince had the Right to decide the Faith of his subjects, whereas the Treaty expressedly said they hadn't.

In the aftermath of the Reformation Jubilee in 1817 Berlin finally introduced the co called "Agenda": Calvinist Supper for their Unionist Landeskirchen.

This original "Agenda" gave rise (in Schlesien) to 19th century Pietism - an opposition claiming (also wrong) to be "Lutheran", mis-reading the 1580 Books of Concord, a shelf warmer up to then...

This spilled over to the US, the Missoury Synod being part of this inner-Calvinist opposition to Berlin's church policies.

Counterlight said...

Goran, you may be right, but the Berliner Dom doesn't look very Calvinist to my eye.

Counterlight said...

I've amended the label for the Dom to "Protestant." I had no idea that the loyalties of the Hohenzollerns were Calvinist.