Cruising the Rhine River in Germany, our ship passed group of imposing sculptures high above the River. Although it was quite a distance away, we could tell that it was really big. Later that day, visiting the town of Rudesheim, I had the opportunity to see it close up. A leisurely ride on a gondola over the vineyards took us up to the monument. Its name in German is Niederwalddenkmal, a long name for a very grand work of art.
The group of bronze sculptures, over 20 meters high, commemorates the establishment of the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The main figure, Germania, measuring 10 meters, is the symbol of the German nation. In her raised right hand, she holds the recaptured crown of the German nation, in the other hand she holds a sword.
Below her are two sculptures, on the left, a figure representing war, the figure on the right, symbolizing peace.
Directly below the three figures is a bas relief representing King Wilhelm I, riding a horse, accompanied by the German nobility, the commanders of the army and soldiers. The lyrics to the song “Wacht am Rhine” are engraved below the relief.
Why was such a grand monument built? Germany was a new nation, cobbled together in a series of wars, from many smaller states by Prussia. The idea of one German nation unifing the various German language speaking states developed over a century. The Napoleonic Wars, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire), and the development of nationalism in Europe made the idea of a German nation possible. When it finally was realized, the new rulers, the royal family of Prussia, decided that the nation needed a symbol. After all, the British had Britannia, the Swiss had Helvetia, so why not Germania as a symbol of Germany? Once the decision to build the monument was made, work began in 1871 and it was inaugurated in 1883. Today it is one of the most visited sites in Germany. It stands on the right bank of the Rhine, on a hill covered with forest in the Tanus Range of mountains. Germania looks over the vineyards of the countryside, gazing into the distance at France, Germany’s rival and oldest enemy.