There are few more beautiful spots in Tübingen to take a stroll than the Platanenallee. Beginning at the Eberhard bridge, which crosses the Neckar at the heart of the city, you descend down onto a narrow island that divides the river, lined by the mighty and ancient plane trees from which the avenue takes its name. Picnics are held amid these giants. Small children play hiding games behind their trunks. Down the broad avenue, elderly Tübingers wearing their best nod courteously to the revelling teenagers whose paths they cross. On the water, scholars attempt to balance their punts and take them down the river, with varying ratios of skill to enthusiasm. To your right, on the far side of the Neckar, rises the city, where the colourful medieval residential buildings that define the view are further adorned by students sat on the wall in front of them. As you make your way west, you will see the late Gothic tower of the Stiftskirche in the distance, as well as the bright yellow tower on the river in which the poet Hölderlin battled his demons. Looming above it all is the red roofed castle, whose thick walls, which once housed the local count, now defend the treasures of the university museum. Press on, and you will reach the sighing forest, where the regimented plane trees that open one to the world are replaced by their smaller, less-disciplined cousins, creating a space of solitude in the middle of the city.
But before reaching that shelter, one must meet a monster.
The most controversial statue in Tübingen lurks where the avenue meets the forest, commanding an open circle that draws you into his realm. Its subject is the celebrated composer and music teacher Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860). Statues and their role in the telling of history have been much in the news recently, not least in the city of my birth, so my attention was drawn to the Silcher statue. I’ve long felt that the way Germany talks about its history holds lessons for other countries with difficult pasts (that is, all of them). The complicity of ordinary Germans in the crimes of the Third Reich and the DDR are taught honestly and bravely in schools and communicated regularly in public. Nor are they separated from ordinary life. Walking down the streets of Germany, one encounters the little golden bricks (Stolpersteine), giving you the name and details of a person who once lived where you now stand and was murdered by the Nazis. Such moments, which collapse time by fixing you to the place, make it impossible to fully banish the spectre of the past. Although other parts of German history are still more forgotten than they should be, most notably the colonial empire in Africa that led to the Herero and Nama genocide, even here efforts are being made to face up to that past. (In between my writing this piece and its publication, Tübingen has acquired an excellent set of signs organised by the local museum which inform the reader about the colonial connections of the city and university in preparation for a permanent exhibition on the subject.) Given Germany’s excellence in coping with historical memory, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the treatment of the Silcher statue.
The statue is not controversial because of its subject. As far as I can tell, Silcher was as inoffensive as the average nineteenth-century person could be. His liberal nationalist leanings led him to be sympathetic to the 1848 revolution. His passion for the German nation was primarily expressed by his work collecting and arranging traditional Volkslieder (folk music). As the head of the music school in Tübingen for most of his life, Silcher played a key role in the cultural life of the city, as well as being celebrated across the German-speaking world. His contribution to Tübingen is commemorated by a street named after him, and his grave in the city cemetery is signposted for visitors.
Rather, the controversy comes from the circumstances in which the statue was put up. You get a strong hint about this when you approach the statue from the front. The whole composition is nearly six metres tall, made of sandstone, and features a colossal sitting Silcher, making notes in a book. The monumental style of a simple twentieth century that fetishized clean lines and dynamic force is ill suited to the composer’s delicate Biedermeier face and cravat, rendering them blocky and crude. Further clues appear as you go round the statue, where, bursting out of Silcher’s back like so many alien parasites, we encounter two soldiers in battle, one of whom has fallen to unseen enemies; another soldier locked in a farewell kiss with a woman; and, most grotesquely, a child marching with a rifle over his shoulder. The effect of the ensemble carried out by these empty-faced figures is to glorify warfare. We can accuse it of many things, but subtle it is not. Just in case we haven’t worked out what we’re looking at yet, we can consult the helpful bright pink graffiti on the base, which accurately informs us that this is a ‘Nazi Denkmal [Monument]’.
The statue was first announced on the 25th June 1939, as Tübingen celebrated the 150th anniversary of Silcher’s birth, and was completed on 11th May 1941. The design and construction followed the specifications of the local Nazi district leader. Given the circumstances, it was felt that the official opening of the statue should be delayed. No such inauguration ever took place. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Nazi-era sculpture, it was never taken down, despite multiple requests over the decades by inhabitants of Tübingen.
I think on balance this is a good thing, because keeping the statue helps to communicate a number of useful points to the people who visit it. The first is the capacity and willingness of totalitarian ideologies to claim and pervert the past and art for its own purposes. The monumental figures of soldiers point towards some of Silcher’s most famous compositions, most notably the tune to Ludwig Uhland’s ‘Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden’. Far from straightforwardly glorifying war, though, the song speaks to the loss experienced by soldiers in battle. This universal applicability has led to it being picked up by militaries from France to Chile. Under Nazi rule, Silcher’s haunting tribute to the sorrow of war was instrumentalised in order to express war’s glory. Nazi leaders used their control of the arts in the present to redefine the art of the past, and place themselves right at the heart of Tübingen’s relationship with its own history.
But this is not just a story of alien functionaries imposing a Nazi ideology upon Tübingen’s historical landscape. That would be far too straightforward. Because the second point to take from this is the enthusiastic participation by people in the Nazi project. People in Tübingen liked the Nazis. It was not hard to find a sculptor, Wilhelm Julius Frick, who could fulfil the requirements of the organisers. For the most part the sculpture was organised by local people who were Nazis. Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis had been popular in Tübingen. Although the working class of the city predominantly supported the Social Democrats or the Communists, the university was strongly right wing, and many of its students would be fast-tracked through the ranks of the SS and the Gestapo. The only Jewish professor in the university was forced out in 1931. By 1935 there were no Jewish students at the university. An Institute for Racial Studies was established in order to racially classify people. It was later renamed the Anthropological Institute. The intellectuals of Tübingen, the people who presumed to set its artistic taste and preserve its cultural tradition, were fully on board with the Nazi project. The statue of Silcher speaks to their willingness to corrupt their past for the totalitarian present.
These are good reasons to keep the statue up. But a statue alone can’t communicate that message. Figural depiction is forever ambiguous and you don’t have to be Percy Shelley to know that statues get read in many different ways by the people who see them. The medieval inhabitants of Constantinople believed the ancient statues of their city communicated omens at night. Historians writing in Ottoman Athens interpreted the ancient statues of their home as magical automata, built to act as soldiers for the wizard-philosophers on the Acropolis during their vain quest for immortality. If the statue of Silcher is going to usefully communicate anything about the Nazi past, it needs to be contextualised. Which is why today the statue is accompanied by a lengthy sign explaining its history, with photos. This sign can also be found online, here in English, and is part of a series of nineteen signs set up in 2016, distributed throughout Tübingen, addressing the city’s Nazi past. (They are well worth reading, and will communicate how easy the good people of Tübingen made researching this post for me). Hence, the visitor to the statue does not just get information while at Silcher’s feet. They are also primed and prepared for it by the very explicit signage throughout the city that provides vital context. This commitment to offering information is what allows the statue to be useful in the present, de-fanging its obvious original purpose and helping us in the present to learn its lessons.
It’s also important to note that this is the result of a continuing conversation among the people of Tübingen that has led to changes over the past eighty years, and this is potentially not the end of the conversation. Statues are intended to be permanent monuments, transmuting the fleeting and the perishable by immortalising it in stone. In practice, this is not the case. Untouched, statues decay, slowly corroding or rapidly collapsing in the face of the elements. Their preservation is a choice, and a conscious active one that demands time, money and labour. The Silcher statue commemorates someone of great artistic significance who had a deep connection to the city in which it stands. No one is harmed by the burnishing of his memory. Nor is the statue a rallying point for those who would be heir to the Nazis. Those are essential preconditions for the statue’s continued prominence. If those facts were to change, if the far-right were to start gathering where Platanenallee meets the forest of sighs, or if new information were to come to light about Silcher, then a new decision might have to be made.
I’m aware that this is not a stirring cry for one side or the other in the debate about controversial statues, but I don’t think a contribution to this debate has to be strident to be useful. Statues are part of the conversation that people and communities have with each other about their past. Above all, they need to be useful or meaningful to the people they serve in the present, even if some of that use or meaning comes from the uncomfortable truths they can tell us about our histories. Because they are part of a continuing process, no final rule or decision can be made that will neatly fit all cases or that can bind all generations to come.
Despite the need to think about all statues in their individual circumstances, I think the Silcher statue does offer a useful lesson for the handling of controversial statues. That is the importance of providing historical context. The commitment by the Tübingen Landkreis to making it really easy to understand the history of the statue, the reasons it was put up, and the explanation for its design is what transforms it from Nazi propaganda to a valuable learning moment for the present. That historical context is the most potent antidote to the poison it was meant to spread, and is an insight that I think communities across the world who are grappling with the monuments of a past both too foreign and too near all at once could benefit from.