Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
On March 30, 1821 – the seventh anniversary of the Prussian charge of Montmartre and the conquest of Paris, which unavoidably triggered Napoleon’s demise – King Friedrich Wilhelm III arrived on top of the Tempelhofer Berg (also known as the Weinberg or the Runder Berg), the highest natural elevation in what is now central Berlin but back in the days formed a district outside the city known as Tempelhofer Vorstadt.
Together with the Russian Tsar Alexander I, Prussian monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm III, came to witness the unveiling of a monument commemorating their victories in what came to be known as the Wars of Liberation. Alexander was Friedrich Wilhelm’s military ally in the wars against Napoleon as well as the man who prevented the Prussian ruler (as well as the Austrian emperor for he was wavering, too) from making possibly the biggest mistake in the history of the Sixth Coalition: from retreating from instead of taking Paris.
The rather magnificent Nationaldenkmal für Befreiungskriege – National Memorial for Wars of Liberation – a cast-iron tapering structure installed on an octagonal stone base and weighing 200 tonnes – was the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Johann Heinrich Strack (responsible for the stone base). Originally planned as a neo-gothic cathedral, it was eventually reduced to the size of 19 metres. A clever decision considering what effect placing a temple on the edge of a massive sand moraine would have most probably had…
Schinkel, supported by several renown contemporary artists with Christian Daniel Rauch as the most prominent name, created an artwork which truly had everything a memorial of this kind should possess: it was impressive, it was elegant, it was full of symbols which everybody understood and was happy to see included and, last but not least, it had twelve extremely good-looking statues with faces the crowds back then were able to recognise.
The memorial’s leitmotiv was a cross: it was a direct reference to a new military decoration introduced by King Wilhelm Friedrich III in 1813 after the Battle of Leipzig (also commemorated there), known as the Eiserne Kreuz, or the Iron Cross. The foot of the memorial itself is shaped liked one and you will find it used from the memorial’s bottom to its very top. Literally, to the very top: the Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg is even crowned with one.
The cross-like shape with four protruding arms created space for twelve niches, each of which is home to a Genius of an important battle. Twelve statues for twelve battles. Twelve faces that back in 1821 could be relatively easily connected to a real name: Queen Louise, the King’s dead wife and probably the most popular monarch in Prussian history (the latter is likely to have been partly caused by the former condition); General York who led the Prussian army against Napoleon’s forces at Wartenburg (the Elbe River crossing he organised there is symbolizes by the boat he is standing on); Tsar Alexander of Russia himself is to be seen as La Rothière (the battle after which he forced the Austrian and Prussian monarchs to “pull their socks up” and go for Paris at full throttle) and Friedrich Wilhelm III became the Genius of the Battle of Kulm.
The memorial, praised by the King and his guests, was unveiled to a series of cheers from the gathered crowds. After the military parade Bishop Rulemann Friedrich Eylert blessed the Nationaldenkmal and a series of gun salutes followed.
On the same day the hill carrying the memorial shed all its previous names and following the royal wish was duly re-named Kreuzberg – the Cross Hill.
In 1878 the Kreuzberg Memorial, whose view by then threatened to be obscured by residential buildings growing around it at steadily increasing pace, was lifted and placed on an eight-metre high stone base designed by Johann Heinrich Strack (the one of the Siegessäule, Belle-Alliance-Brücke, now Hallesche Brücke, and the long-gone Magistratsklaviere flanking the entrance to the equally extinct Belle-Alliance-Platz, or Mehringplatz today).
Clearly, lifting 200 tonnes of stone and iron could not be left to amateurs: for many the obvious choice was Carl Hoppe, a German engineer, owner of an iron foundry and a machine designer whose factory had its first seat in Köpenicker Straße. He produced a custom-made hydraulic lift with water pressure of 30 atmospheres and capable of hoisting objects weighing up to 16 tonnes. With twelve such machines Hoppe allowed the Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg temporarily to defy gravitation. After the new base was safely installed underneath it, the memorial took a 21-degree turn while being lowered onto it to create a perfect line with the street at the foot of the hill: with Monumentenstraße, whose name soon after that was changed to Großbeerenstraße.
When in 1920 the Greater Berlin Act was passed by the Prussian government, officially incorporating towns, villages and estates surrounding the capital city and turning Berlin into a metropolis with twenty new boroughs, one of them – Bezirk VI – was named Hallesches Tor. However, only a year later, to celebrate the Memorial’s hundredth birthday, the city elders decided to change it: on September 27, 1921 it was re-named Kreuzberg.
A short video below was made on top of the Kreuzberg.
The Nationaldenkmal am Kreuzberg is part of my audio-tour available through Voice Maps – you can also listen to it through your computer as a preparation for a great Berlin walk you might be taking soon. Enjoy!