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German pride on the prairie: New Ulm’s Hermann statue

The statue is based on a first-century German folk hero.

On the bluffs above New Ulm stands a statue of Hermann, a first-century German chieftain who triumphed over Rome. This copper-sheet sculpture reflects the pride the early German American immigrants to Minnesota felt in their cultural background. Built in 1897 with funds raised from Sons of Hermann lodges all over the country, the monument is now owned by the City of New Ulm.

Known locally as “Hermann the German,” the heroic figure stands ready to fight atop a dome in Hermann Heights Park in New Ulm. A member of the Cherusci tribe of Germania, the historical Hermann (or Arminius, as the Romans called him) served in the Roman Army. According to Roman sources, in September, 9 CE, Arminius led three Roman legions into a trap and defeated them. The Roman army suffered terrible losses. As a result, Rome gave up trying to conquer German lands east of the Rhine. Arminius brought together several tribes under his rule until his death about a decade after his victory.

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In Germany, Arminius gained folk hero status (and the name of Hermann) over the centuries. Songs, plays, and poems celebrated him. By the nineteenth century, Hermann had become a symbol of a strong, united country for Germans eager to define a national identity. In 1875, sculptor Joseph Ernst von Bandel completed a large monument to Hermann near Detmold, Germany, where he thought the battle had taken place. (Evidence now points to Kalkriese, a hill in Lower Saxony, Germany, as the site of the battle.)

The Detmold sculpture inspired Germans on the other side of the Atlantic. Julius Berndt, one of the founders of New Ulm, persuaded a German American group, the Sons of Hermann, to fund a similar work to show pride in their ethnic heritage. An architect and founding members of the Sons’ New Ulm chapter, Berndt designed the monument himself. Sculptor Alphonz Pelzer of the W. H. Mullins Manufacturing Company in Salem, Ohio, made the statue from copper sheeting over a steel frame.

After debate over the location, a cornerstone was laid in New Ulm on June 24, 1888. Although completed in 1889, the sculpture sat in storage for several years while Berndt raised enough money from individuals and Sons of Hermann lodges to finish the base.

On September 25, 1897, the Sons of Hermann dedicated the monument at its national meeting, held in New Ulm. The town celebrated with weeklong events and a special beer, Hermann’s Brau. Special trains brought crowds to New Ulm for the festivities. Speakers extolled Hermann as a freedom fighter, in part in response to the growing prohibition movement, which disapproved of the German tradition of beer drinking.

The foundation, base, cupola, and statue together reach a height of 102 feet. One of the largest copper sheet statues in the United States, Hermann looks out over the town of New Ulm, a sword in his right hand, a shield in his left hand, and a foot placed firmly on a Roman helmet. Only New York City’s Statue of Liberty (151 feet) and Portlandia (almost thirty-four feet) in Portland, Oregon, are taller than Hermann (thirty-two feet from sword tip to toe). Ten pillars circle an open base with a spiral staircase in the middle that leads to the cupola. From a platform beneath Hermann’s feet, visitors can view the Minnesota River Valley. The base houses a small museum on Hermann and the history of the monument.

In 1929, the City of New Ulm took over the site from the Sons of Hermann. The structure underwent significant repairs in 1999 with support from the Minnesota legislature. Jesse Ventura cited this project, which he viewed as government waste, as one of the reasons for his decision to run for governor. New Ulm has continued to restore the monument, adding four cast iron lions, part of Julius Berndt’s original design, to the base in 2001 and removing the statue in 2004 to make further repairs.

Placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1973, the Hermann Monument was designated as a symbol of the contributions of Americans of German heritage by the 106th U.S. Congress in 2000. Back on his pedestal in 2005, Hermann kept his watch once again, providing German-Americans with a link to their cultural past.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.