Populist Historicism

Dedicated on December 18th, 1901, the Victory Avenue in Berlin became an emblematic symbol of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign as perceived by intellectual circles in the Kaiserreich: crude and overly bombastic. The avenue, consisting of a series of statues to former Prussian kings, was named the “Avenue of Dolls” by Berliners. It became not only a symbol of dissatisfaction with the Kaiser himself, but with dissatisfaction with Berliner historicism. Christopher Clark, in his book Iron Kingdom, frames these issues in the light of a disconnect between Prussian state culture and contemporary German culture. The Kaiser, in a speech he gave at its dedication, framed it in the following light: “An art that oversteps the laws and boundaries which I have indicated is no longer art; it is factory work, it is trade, and that no art dare become.”

As easy as it is to frame this event in the light of autocratic pomposity, Kaiser Wilhelm II also presents this avenue in the light of soft populism, “art must help to educate the people; it must give the lower classes, after their cramping exertions, the opportunity to right themselves again through ideals.” From this comes an Industrial-Period yearning to raise-up the lower dregs of society through high works. This was also the ideology of the Hobrecht Plan to expand Berlin: neo-renaissance city palaces that hold all the classes. The plan, in that singular regard, failed and instead gave rise to Berlin’s infamous “Rental Barracks”, but the idealism is still there. This is the backing of the Kaiser’s support for historicism in this particular context, “The fostering of the ideal is the greatest work of culture; and if we wish to be and to remain a pattern in this for other peoples, then we must work all together; and if culture is to accomplish its full task, then it must penetrate through to the very lower strata of the people.”

To be certain, the Kaiser’s desires are certainly anachronistic as this speech also contains many a reference to, “great achievements in the art of the Middles Ages and of the Italians,” and is a hardly veiled insult to modern art. These views, however, come connected to an interesting social idealism that makes the issue a little more complex than upon first blush. Whilst they seem to have not gained much contemporary enthusiasm nor do they remove the aforementioned reactionary opinions, they are an interesting thought exercise for those interested in the Imperial era. This is rather emblematic for the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The more you look and scratch into the nature of his reign, the most complexities and contradictions you find.

Clark, Christopher M. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Ladd, Brian. The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Hohenzollern, Wilhelm Von, and Christian Gauss. The German Emperor as Shown in His Public Utterances. London: Heinemann, 1915.

Pugh, Emily. Architecture, Politics, and Identity in Divided Berlin. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

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