A Museum full of Statues

Lenin’s head.

As a country that has seen empire, Nazi dictatorship, two world wars, division and reunification, Germany has a lot of experience with unwanted monuments and statues. Some of them are now kept in the former provisions depot on the grounds of the Spandau Citadel in Berlin where you can see, among others, statues of Prussian monarchs, a church bell with a swastika its embarrassed post-war owners were unable to remove, and the famous head of Lenin.*

This giant head lying on its side as if it had rolled off the block on the scaffold belonged to a giant statue of the Russian revolutionary and Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov unveiled in 1970 at Leninplatz, the present Platz der Vereinten Nationen, in the eastern Berlin district of Friedrichshain. The statue was destroyed in the early 1990s after German reunification because the then mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, would not tolerate symbols of a ‘dictatorship in which people were persecuted and murdered’. The parts of the statue were buried in a forest in the south-eastern part of Berlin. However, the head was recovered in 2015 when it found its way into the museum in Spandau, where it is now part of the ‘Unveiled’ exhibition.

The ‘Hitler bell’.

The church bell has its own inglorious history. Known as one of several ‘Hitler bells’, this bronze bell with Nazi symbolism was made in 1934 – one year after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power – for the evangelical parish church of Wichern-Radeland in Berlin’s Spandau district.

Only in 1962, however, did a new pastor point to the untenable situation that ‘the bell which is calling (the faithful) to the service should still carry the symbols of Third Reich ideology’. It was decided to remove the swastika from the bell, but attempts to do so failed. Some 55 years later, in 2017, the bell was finally silenced for good and another two years later removed to the Citadel.

One of the things I liked the most about the exhibit was an interactive touch-screen map of Berlin showing the locations of monuments over the centuries, each dot colour coded to show the period of history when it was erected. If you press one of the dots, a window will pop up on the screen with a picture of the monument and an explanatory text, giving a brief outline of its history, including when it was destroyed or removed or if it can still be seen at its original site. Alternatively, you can search the map by period or by district to compare, for instance, the density of monuments in certain parts of the city at different periods, in the East and in the West. It is truly a shame that this tool is not (yet) available online.

Another interactive touch screen tells the story of the many statues which used to line the Siegesallee or Victory Avenue in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. Erected under Emperor William II at the turn of the 20th century, the marble statues of former Prussian royal figures and busts of various courtiers had already caused much criticism and hilarity among contemporaries for being overly grand and patriotic. After World War I, there were calls to remove them. The German satirist Kurt Tucholsky, meanwhile, opposed their removal in a poem entitled ‘The Break’. While ridiculing the ‘dolls’ of ‘beautiful white marble’, he nevertheless pleaded to leave them in place as a familiar sight of his childhood and ‘testimony to a grand era’. 

In 1938, Hitler moved the statues to the Neue Siegesallee because they got in the way of building projects for his planned new world capital Germania. After 1945, however, the statues which had survived World War II were finally removed by the Allied powers as symbols of German militarism and grandeur. The majority of the statues were rescued by state curator Hinnerk Schaper who had them buried in the grounds of nearby Schloss Bellevue, from where they were recovered in the 1970s. They too eventually found their way into the Spandau Citadel, where they form the largest part of the current collection.

Statues from the Siegesallee.

The exhibit also has various film clips showing monuments in their surroundings, such as the statue of the ‘Trümmerfrau’ in Neukölln’s Hasenheide park with school children running past, briefly looking in wonder at the large seated stone woman with a hammer in her lap, staring wearily into the void. She stands for all the women who after the Second World War were thought to have searched through the rubble of destroyed buildings to look for usable materials to rebuild their bombed cities.** Then, the scene changes and you see the statue’s unveiling ceremony in the 1950s with many of those who would have been ‘Trümmerfrauen’ seated in the audience in a then still much tidier and cleaner park.

Of course, not all of the statues and monuments in the exhibition are unwanted. Some of them were just taken down for conservation purposes and might be restored. Others will, for good reason, be kept as museum pieces at the Citadel or elsewhere and serve educational purposes. For while it might be good to topple a statue which has come to be offensive to its surroundings, it is rarely a good idea to destroy it.


* All pictures were taken in the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Spandau, Zitadelle.
** There is now some debate over the extent to which ‘Trümmerfrauen’ might or might not have contributed to the rebuilding of German cities. See this review by Andrea Lueg, ‘Trümmerfrauen”-Studie: Wer Deutschland wirklich vom Schutt befreite’, DLF, 9 February 2015, https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/truemmerfrauen-studie-wer-deutschland-wirklich-vom-schutt.1310.de.html?dram:article_id=311180, accessed on 2 October 2020.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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