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History explained: Battle of Leipzig (1813)

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

October 2019 saw the 206th anniversary of the Battle of the Nations (16th – 19th October 1813). Also known as the Battle of Leipzig, this battle pitted Napoleon’s Grand Armee against a coalition army made up of Swedish, Russian and Austrian forces.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations, Leipzig. Photo: Leon Wallis via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

It also pitted Germans against Germans, with troops from Saxony and Württemberg making up part of Napoleon’s force and Prussia supporting the Coalition. The battle resulted in a decisive defeat of the French, forcing them to retreat over the Rhine and back into France. It was especially humiliating for Napoleon; clearly, he was not completely infallible.

For Germany (though not yet a unified country), this four-day battle was particularly significant. Firstly, it encouraged the German states of the Confederation of the Rhine to change sides and join the Coalition, who would go on to invade France and remove Napoleon from power in 1814. Secondly, it was the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars as well as the largest battle in Europe prior to World War I, involving over half a million soldiers and 2,000 guns.

It is unsurprising therefore that a suitably huge memorial (the largest commemorative structure in Europe, in fact) was built a century later to commemorate the battle. Constructed in a uniquely German style, the 91-metre-high monument is an artistic expression of the national German identity.

Echoing classical friezes, the front façade features a relief depicting the battle, over which is the inscription ‘Gott mit uns’ (God with us), the military slogan of Prussia, which is itself an allusion to the Bible. High above stand twelve 13-metre high statues of warriors leaning on their swords, symbolising the ‘willingness of the German people to defend their freedom’.

Inside the emphasis is on the unity and strength of the German people. With its huge statues of Teutonic knights and gigantic Barbarossa heads, the memorial’s design draws on traditional Germanic mythology. In the so-called ‘Hall of Fame’ are four seated figures embody the “characteristics of the German people” in wartime: bravery, sacrifice, strength of faith and the strength of the German people. The interior of dome is lined with 324 equestrian reliefs representing the homecoming of the victors.The overwhelming focus of the memorial is not mourning and grief but honour and the strength of the German nation.

The memorial is a powerful political symbol and allegory of German nationalism and heritage. Under National Socialism, it interpreted as a symbol of the Volksgemeinschaft (People’s Community) that the Nazis sought to create in Germany. To the later East German government, seeking to find a historical foundation and heritage for the new German Democratic Republic (GDR), the monument symbolised the building of a socialist German national state. The Battle of the Nations memorial therefore highlights the politicised nature of memorials and demonstrates how the meaning attached to memorials is not fixed but can reinterpreted to suit contemporary political agendas.


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