FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The Battle of Nations

Posted in Germany, Leipzig by folkestonejack on May 5, 2014

The Battle of Nations on October 1813 was the largest battle in Europe prior to the First World War, drawing in the armies of Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Sweden in the attempt to defeat Napoleon and his Grande Armée (which in itself was something of an international coalition).

The battle was a pivotal moment in history, particularly as the decisions made at the subsequent peace congress of Vienna re-shaped Europe, sealed the fate of many nations and set a slow-burning fuse that would lead to war before the end of the century. I am sorry to say that it was a period that I never really covered at school, but Adam Zamoyski’s terrific book ‘Rites of Peace’ provides a compelling account of Napoleon’s fall and the diplomacy of the congress.

The Völkerschlachtdenkmal

The Völkerschlachtdenkmal

On my visit to Leipzig I headed to the best known of the monuments erected to remember the battle – the gigantic, if not exactly beautiful, Völkerschlachtdenkmal. This monument was actually only completed in 1913 to commemorate the centenary of the battle, but there are other monuments dotted around the former battlefield that were erected in the immediate aftermath of the bloodshed (not dissimilar to the monuments you see spread around the battlefield at Waterloo).

The vast scale of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal really hits you as you enter through the crypt, looking at the vast foundations, then again as you look down from the Singers’ Gallery at the matchstick figures having their pictures taken next to the feet of the giant statues in the Hall of Fame. It’s not necessarily a monument that you fall in love with but you cannot fail to be impressed.

Tiny figures in the Hall of Fame

Tiny figures in the Hall of Fame

It turns out to be a good time to visit as the renovations completed for the 200th anniversary have removed the black discolouration and once again revealed long hidden details, such as the equestrian relief that covers the interior of the dome. It is quite astonishing to see the transformation that the restorers have wrought.

There are other innovations that have been delivered in the refreshed presentation that has accompanied the restoration, such as an audio-visual presentation that cleverly wove the story of the battle, the commissioning of the building, its construction and subsequent appropriation in the national socialist and DDR eras.

Traffic lights at the top

Traffic lights at the top

The ascent to the very top of the monument requires you to climb a very narrow set of stairs, which would be a nightmare if it was not controlled as there is no room to pass. Ingeniously, they have installed traffic lights to go up and down! Having experienced the awkward moment of trying to squeeze pass visitors on many a spiral staircase in English castles, this makes a refreshing change.

The classic view across the water

The classic view across the water

Although the rooftop view is great, it is the view across the water up to the monument that adorns most picture postcards of Leipzig. This shot is particularly effective in late afternoon with the full effect of sunlight striking the front of the structure.

The Napoleon Stone

The Napoleon Stone

Two other memorials to the battle are in easy walking distance. The first, the Napoleon Stone, is literally just around the corner. The monument was unveiled in October 1857 and marks the spot from which Napoleon observed the battle. It is a simple affair – a small granite block on which replicas of the sword, hat and telescope of the Emperor rest.

Saint Alexi Memorial Church

Saint Alexi Memorial Church

The second memorial site that I visited was the Saint Alexi Memorial Church. This Russian Orthodox church was completed in 1910 to commemorate the 22,000 Russian soldiers who died during the battle. The church has been undergoing restoration in time for the anniversary but the scaffolding was only just coming down today. It is as beautiful on the interior as it is striking from the outside, with an iconostasis containing 87 icons.

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