Arminius on the Hermannsdenkmal is the largest sculpture in Germany. It commemorates the victory of Germanic tribes over the Romans in AD9 in the Teutoburg Forest.
The 19th-century Hermannsdenkmal (Arminius Memorial) is a large bronze statue of Germanic leader Arminius mounted on a columned pedestal on top of a hill in the Teutoburg Forest near Detmold in the northern parts of North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany. It commemorates the victory of the Germanic tribes over the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago. The memorial was built in the spirit of nationalism of the 19th century but is nowadays mostly visit for the fine views while driving, cycling, or hiking through this area of natural beauty.
Arminius (Hermann) and the Romans
The Hermannsdenkmal (Arminius Memorial) with its large bronze statue of Arminius was erected as a national monument celebrating a famous victory over foreign invaders. Arminius, usually translated in German literature as Hermann (but as Arminius in history and academic work), was a Cherusci leader who in AD9 led an alliance of Germanic tribes to a famous victory over three Roman leagues led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. The battle changed history — the Romans permanently halted their expansion northwards into Germany beyond the Rhine River.
Although around 20,000 Romans were killed in this Battle of the Teutoburg Forest — also known as the Varian disaster, Varusschlacht, or Hermannschlacht — the exact location of the battle remains unknown. Current thinking is that it happened in the modern community Bramsche a bit to the north of Osnabrück. The location of the monument was selected for the fine views and due to the approval of the local prince.
The Hermannsdenkmal was born in a spirit of liberalism but by the time of its completion, it was an absolute symbol of belligerent nationalism. It was used and misused for political reasons throughout its history but most visitors currently visit for the views and to briefly see the monument. The inscriptions, information panels, and other small memorial get very little attention.
Construction of the Hermannsdenkmal
The Hermannsdenkmal was the life work of Ernst von Bandel (1800-1876), who actively worked on it from 1838 until its inauguration in 1875 — a year before his own death. He planned a monument for Arminius from the early 1830s and considered various locations including near the Externsteine but Fürst Leopold II of Lippe finally gave approval for it only at the 386-m high Grotenburg hill location where it was finally erected. (The prince realized the tourism potential and liked that the statue would be visible from many parts of his principality.)
Designs changed slightly through the decades but the main problem was usually financing the project. The pedestal was completed by 1844 but at a huge cost overrun. Donations dried up and Bandel could only work on the statue sporadically. The iron frame carrying the copper plates was done by 1860 but money was tight.
Following the Prussian defeat of Austria in 1866 and the annexation of Hannover, the Prussian government became interested. Nationalism reached fever point after the defeat of France and the unification of Germany in 1871. The Reichstag financed the completion of the monument, which was inaugurated in 1875 in the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Crown Prince Frederick, and around 30,000 visitors.
Since then, remarkably little was altered or added to the monument. A few extra small memorials were erected nearby, a staircase and viewing platform, a visitors center near the large parking lot, and a separate climbing park (Kletterpark). The statue itself has only been cleaned once, in 2016.
Measurements of the Hermannsdenkmal
The Hermannsdenkmal consists simply of a 20-m high monopteros pedestal, topped off with a cupola on which the huge statue is mounted.
The numbers of the Hermannsdenkmal are impressive — this is not surprising as it is the largest statue in Germany and was the largest statue in the western hemisphere until the erection of the Statue of Liberty in the USA a decade later.
The total height of the monument is 53.44 m including the 24.82 m high Arminius sculpture with its 7-m sword. This bronze statue weighs 11,850 kg including 1,150 kg for the shield and 550 kg for the sword. If the steel frame is added the total weight is 42,800 kg.
Statue of Arminius in the Teutoburger Wald
The Hermann statue is of a German bearded warrior standing in a contra pose holding a shield in his left hand and a huge sword pointing upwards in his right. His dress is supposed to be typical Germanic but nothing is added to identify a specific tribe. His winged hat was deliberately chosen, even if historically inaccurate, to show the eagle as the heraldic symbol of a united Germany. At the same time, he crushes a Roman eagle under his left foot.
The inscription on the sword translates to “German unity is my strength — my strength is Germany’s might”. On the shield is “Treufest”, faithful / loyal.
The statue consists of around 200 copper plates riveted to a steel frame. It is possible to climb up inside the statue all the way into the head but for general visitors, access is only allowed to the ring viewing platform at the top of the pedestal.
Pedestal of the Hermann Monument
The pedestal resembles a Greek monopteros but Bandel considered the classical pillars that his competitors preferred as unsuitable for a German national monument and thus used Gothic arches with a hint of the Romanesque. Both the pedestal and the dome are of local sandstone (Osning-Sandstein). The high pedestal was essential to lift the statue above the tree line and to make it visible from the surrounding countryside.
A 75-step spiral staircase inside the monument gives access to the circular viewing platform. The views from here are magnificent as the structure is higher than the surrounding trees but there is nothing else to see, and the view is frankly not that interesting, so some visitors complain about the €4 charge.
Only three of the ten niches have inscriptions and these were only added after the foundation of the German Empire in 1871:
- The first in Latin and German is a quote from Tacitus describing Arminius as the liberator of the Germans.
- The second refers to the Napoleonic Wars. It describes Prussia as the liberator of Germany and blames disunity (some German states sided with the French) for the initial German weakness.
- The longest inscription praises Kaiser Wilhelm I for uniting Germany and completely defeating the French Emperor Louis Napoleon in the war of 1870-71.
The wide staircase to a viewing platform was added for the 1909 celebrations. It is decorated with statues of Roman trophies with a large stone bench dedicated to the memory of Bandel.
To the east are a few further memorial stones that were erected in years following the inauguration of the memorial. One shows the spot where Kaiser Wilhelm I sat during the opening ceremony. The largest is a memorial for Otto von Bismarck to commemorate his 80th birthday.
The small hut where Bandel lived and worked is sometimes open with a small exhibition (free).
A series of around 10 information tables explain in German and English the history and construction of the monument. More information is available from the modern visitors center at the parking lot.
On the hill were two circular Celtic-era earth ramparts but not much of them remain visible. Short hiking routes lead to some parts of the earth mounts but nature is often more impressive than the scant remains. Archaeological research found very little of interest here.
Politics of the Hermannsdenkmal
The Hermannsdenkmal was political from its conception to the present but probably currently less so than at any other time in its history.
The Hermannsdenkmal was conceived originally in a spirit of liberalism. For many Germans, and other Europeans, Napoleon was a liberator. Sure, they were not happy with being occupied and taxed by the French but he brought an end to the literally hundreds of small German states with its own rules, taxes, laws, and ruling elites of varying qualities. At the same time as the foundation stone for the monument was laid, a cartoon showed how the nearby principality of Schaumburg-Lippe (Bückeburg) was so small that a wagon passing through stuck out on either end past the border posts (where duties were levied going in and out).
However, pure nationalism was soon the leading motive. Attempts to unify Germany with a liberal constitution failed in 1848, which led to less interest in the monument. However, nationalism went into overdrive after the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866, the defeat of France, and the foundation of the German Empire in 1871.
The German Reichstag financed the completion of the monument. Arminius already conveniently faced west — the direction of the approaching Romans but also the direction of the archenemy France. Only the inscriptions praising Prussia and Emperor Wilhelm had to be added to satisfy the nationalistic demands of the time.
Around 30,000 people, including Kaiser Wilhelm I, attended the inauguration of the monument in 1875. A similar number — but Emperor Wilhelm II explicitly not invited due to a quarrel with the Fürst of Lippe — attended the 1900-year anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 1909.
Although from the completion of the monument to the end of the Second World War, nationalist and reactionary groups often gathered at the Hermannsdenkmal, meetings were relatively small. Hitler visited in 1926 but despite the local Nazi Party being keen to declare the moment a pilgrimage site for the German nation, Berlin showed little interest. The monument was used in propaganda but the infrastructure and transportation links were simply not advanced enough for the size of events Goebbels preferred.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the monument has been of little political importance and mostly been used for touristic purposes. Concerts and open-air film events are held and the region is very popular with hikers and cyclists.
It is currently being described as “a memorial for peace, for understanding between nations, for a humanist Europe, and a monument where families, friends, and the youth of all nations could meet.” Most visitors come for the views and a brief glance at the monument — reading the inscriptions and the information panels often seem the exception rather than the rule.
The Hermann Monument is always open with admission to the region completely free. Only parking and climbing up the monument are charged for — buy tickets at the visitors center at the large parking lot.
Climbing the monument is €4 for adults and €2 for children 6 to 14. The view from the top is good but not particularly interesting. Parking is €4 — all day. Combination tickets are usually available with the Externsteine, which is a popular sight nearby often visited on the same day by day-trippers from the large cities of North-Rhine Westphalia.
The Kletterpark, climbing park in the trees, is popular with families and has separate opening hours and admission charges.
The Hermannsdenkmal, Grotenburg 50, Detmold, is easiest reach by car but cycling and hiking are also popular. The Touristiklinie 792 bus from Detmold station (and the Externsteine) stopped here on weekends during the summer season. During the week, use bus 703 (stop Kreuzweg) or bus 704 (stop Hiddeser Straße) followed by a short walk.
Similar mostly 19th-century nationalistic monuments in Germany include for example the Niederwalddenkmal near Rüdesheim, Valhalla near Regensburg, Befreiungshalle near Kelheim, the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz, Ruhmes Halle in Munich, Kyffhäuser-Denkmal near Bad Frankenhausen, and the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig.