Struggle, Failure, and Delusions of Grandeur: Lortzing, Virchow, and Fontane as Avatars of Berlin, 1906–10

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Wilson Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Eva Giloi, Rutgers University at Newark
Berlin’s monumentalism began early in the nineteenth century with monuments to the victory against Napoleon. They were joined over the course of the century by increasingly pompous royal statues, often surrounded by generals and state ministers, to emphasize the power of the state. From mid-century on, German cultural greats -- Schiller, Goethe, Hegel -- were set up as pendants to celebrate the arts and intellect. Specialized constituencies set up their own tributes to honor their most prominent members, for instance when Alois Senefelder was celebrated in stone by fellow lithographers. While the commemorative juggernaught rolled on, a different class of monuments emerged after 1900 that worked against the usual scripts of national genius. The statues of Albert Lortzing (1906), Rudolf Virchow (1906-1910), and Theodor Fontane (1910), for instance, were erected both as avatars of Berlin (all three were styled as true Berliners) and as anti-heroes to their more famous counterparts, Wagner, Bismarck, and Goethe, whose effigies stood in close proximity but with very different cultural narratives. Where the monumentalism of cultural heroes stressed triumph, glory, and incomparability, the anti-heroes offered the solace of being second rate. Lortzing, composer of light operas, had died penniless and unappreciated; the pathologist and municipal politician Virchow had too often locked horns with the imperial government; and the novelist Fontane was described at his monument’s unveiling as “unequal” to Germany’s cultural greats. Why were these three men chosen to be Berlin’s avatars? What was it about their life narratives, and the stories projected onto them, that resonated with Berlin’s identity as a modern city? More specifically, which Berliners were drawn to their narratives of struggle, failure, and the lack of cultural greatness? This paper conducts a reception history to examine how the new anti-hero statuary intersected with identity-formation in the modern metropolis.