I knew it from pictures, old ones, and supposed it had been destroyed during the war, or fallen to pieces afterwards. It is a bit of a shock, this hot evening in June, to see it on the edge of the Tiergarten, next to the bus stop where I’m planning to take the line 200. Shielded by a kind of railway station roof, white, clean and shiny, Berlin’s marble Richard Wagner monument looks as if it has been unveiled only recently.
The roof, it turns out, dates from 1987. It wasn’t the war that nearly destroyed the monument, but acid rain and street vandalism. Restorations have been executed as recently as 2016, supplementing arms, toes, noses and what else was missing.
The composer, enthroned like a ruler, is gazing upward. The index of his left hand is nervously tapping the lion-headed armrest of his chair, the right hand is tightly clenched to a fist. He looks annoyed, rather than inspired. His anger must have seemed unmotivated in the original setting. But with nothing but steel and semi-transparent glass to look at, it takes on a new meaning. He’s been robbed of the sky.
Around the pedestal, seven theatrical figures: the ruler’s subjects, more down-to-earth than their creator. Pride of place is taken by the Minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose outstretched arm seems to direct an inaudible applause towards Richard the Great. Part historical figure, part Wagnerian operatic hero, Wolfram presumably stands for a German cultural tradition that in Wagner has achieved its crowning glory. But in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser Wolfram is only a minor character. The title hero himself is portrayed as a weary pilgrim, collapsing on the steps, while on the opposite side Brünnhilde stands brooding over Siegfried’s corpse. On the far end, one of the Rheintöchter is teasing the greedy gnome Alberich. An odd selection: Tannhäuser twice, and twice Der Ring des Nibelungen; but no Tristan und Isolde, no Hans Sachs, no Parsifal.
Wolfram’s posture and prominent place seem to have been dictated by Emperor Wilhelm II himself, who in 1901 made a rough sketch for the monument (it is reproduced in Hartmut Zelinsky’s Richard Wagner: Ein deutsches Thema, 1983). The monument is, in fact, a celebration of the Kaiser’s culture politics as much as a homage to Wagner’s art. Its execution was entrusted to the prolific sculptor Gustav Eberlein. His work has so mercilessly fallen from grace in the 1960’s, that much of it was wilfully destroyed. In the Tiergarten his statue of a dandyish Albert Lortzing still stands, currently under restoration.
Eberlein’s bad tempered Wagner monument is evidence of a megalomania that in its own day, to many observers, looked as ludicrous as it does today. Who would nowadays want to spend so much care on such an absurdly pompous reminder of the Wilheminian era? There must have been a fierce debate, I would suppose, about the desirability of such an investment. But if there was, it has left no easily found traces on the internet.
Rulers may be ridiculous, even certifiably mad – as we know, it is hardly an obstacle in leading a country to ruin. It’s something we should keep in mind when we consider whether the most dubious memorials of the past deserve rehabilitation. They might still feed the delusion that the past is a fairyland, still be a source of “great again” phantasies. Maybe therefore we’d better leave these monuments out in the open, quietly to rot. Sic transit.
Another “Battle around Wagner”, caricature by Arthur Johnson in the Berlin satirical weekly Kladderadatsch, March 1907. The top caption reads, translated: Deputy Brömel complained in the House of Representatives that the public is seriously endangered by the number of automobiles in the Tiergarten, all the more so as the police protect only the monuments.
Considering the journal’s conservative stance and the illustrator’s later National Socialist sympathies, the target of this cartoon is more likely to have been Deputy Max Broemel’s critique, than what it actually shows: an onslaught of the motorized rich upon the pedestrian poor, and a government prioritizing constructions over people. The lower caption sarcastically states: In the new deluge that is inexorably taking modern Babylon along, things unfortunately do not always have to proceed according to dignity and merit.