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Leader of Second Reich, Dead Since 1888, Causing A Major Stir

September 14, 1991

KOBLENZ, Germany (AP) _ Should Kaiser Wilhelm I ride again?

A gargantuan bronze statue of the emperor of the militaristic Second German Reich was blasted off its stone platform in 1945 by American troops.

Now a debate rages over whether he deserves to be restored to a triangle of land where the Rhine and Mosel converge, a symbolically significant place because of the rivers’ importance in German history.

Wilhelm’s detractors say that because Wilhelm is a symbol of Prussian power, the statue’s pedestal should remain bare. Supporters call the original statue a piece of history, and point out that Wilhelm, whatever his faults, united the German people.

″A real battle is raging over this,″ said Irene Nehls, spokeswoman for the state Culture Ministry. Emotions run high, with pro and con letters appearing in local newspapers.

The dispute is the latest manifestation of Germany’s pained struggle to come to terms with figures from its dark past.

First came the debate over the semi-official reburial of Frederick the Great, Wilhelm’s 18th-century ancestor and a symbol of Prussian militarism, at his summer palace in Potsdam last month.

East German Weimar, the birthplace Friedrich Nietzsche, has been grappling with how best to recognize the philosopher who coined the term ″Uebermensch″ (superman). He was a nearly forbidden topic in Communist East Germany because of the inspiration found in his works by Adolf Hitler.

Now Kaiser Wilhelm I is causing a stir, even though the former Prussian king has been dead for 103 years.

″This statue is too much a reminder of Greater Germany, of everything Kaiser Wilhelm did wrong,″ said Rose Goette, culture minister for Rhineland- Palatinate state.

Like Frederick, Wilhelm had a strong military penchant.

He built up Prussia’s army, appointed Otto von Bismarck as chancellor, embarked on wars with Denmark, Austria and France, and in 1871 was proclaimed emperor of Germany at Versailles after defeating the French.

The original Wilhelm statue was unveiled in 1897, built on orders from Wilhelm II, the last German emperor.

The Koblenz site was chosen because the Rhine-Mosel confluence - called the ″German Corner″ - has been one of Europe’s busiest maritime crossroads for centuries. When merchants sailed by, Kaiser Wilhelm was there to remind them of Germany’s greatness.

But the statue had an ignoble end. U.S. troops blew it up in the waning days of World War II. After the war, impoverished Germans sold its remains as souvenirs so they could afford food.

Last year, a Koblenz couple signed a contract with Rhineland-Palatinate state to build a new 46-foot statue. The state would have to pay just nominal costs.

But the Rhineland-Palatinate Christian Democrats were ousted in elections, and the new state leaders - the left-leaning Social Democrats - are opposed to resurrecting William and his horse.

It looks like Wilhelm’s backers might have their way.

The new statue is nearly complete, and state government officials say they see little hope of getting out of the legal contract.

Update hourly