Steuben Monument, LaFayette Square
German Roots in Washington

  • The Steuben Monument in LaFayette Square. Photo Credit: Bruce Guthrie
    The Steuben Monument in LaFayette Square.
  • The Steuben Monument in LaFayette Square. Photo Credit: Bruce Guthrie
    The Steuben Monument in LaFayette Square.
Like words, phrases and songs, statues and monuments have their own history, and LaFayette Square's famous statues of European-born heroes of the American Revolution are no exception. At the four corners of the square stand statues of the Marquis de LaFayette (southwest corner, dedicated in 1891), the Comte de Rochambeau (southeast corner, a gift from France in 1902), General Thaddeus Kosciusko (northeast corner, 1910), and, later the same year, Baron Steuben (northwest corner, dedicated December 7, 1910). 

As might be imagined, the placement of these statues and the elaborate festivities at their dedications right across from the White House reflected the cultural and political rivalries of countries and ethnic groups within the United States in the pre-World War I era. At the center of LaFayette Square (often referred to as Jackson Square in the past) is the heroic equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson by the American Clark Mills, cast from bronze cannon captured by Jackson in the War of 1812, and dedicated in 1853. There are two copies of the famous statue, one in the French Quarter in New Orleans (1856) and the other in Nashville, Tennessee (1880).

With statues of two French heroes of the revolution on the Square, German-Americans pressed for a monument to call their own--and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794) was the obvious subject. Baron Steuben was, after all, the most famous German-American of the American Revolution and known as the "drillmaster" who pulled together Washington's rag-tag army and enabled its success against the British. The dimensions of Steuben's symbolic and festive importance to the German-speaking community in Washington were described by Bradford Miller in 2001. The dedication--with the participation of President Taft, the German Ambassador, and many prominent German-American organizations--was the last national festive occasion for German-American friendship in the nation's capital before the catastrophe of World War I. The sculpture is the work of the German-born American sculptor Albert Jaegers (1868-1925).

Little-known is the fact that a replica of the statue of Baron Steuben was created at the same time as the original and presented by the Congress of the United States to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Nation in 1911.

Today, visitors to LaFayette Square notice the vigils more than they do the statuary. Vigils for peace and nuclear disarmament have been held on the sidewalk across from the White House continually for over twenty years. This is another DC neighborhood that serves as a crossroads for playing out local, national, and international issues.

A number of relics related to Baron Steuben are held in the library and museum of The Society of the Cincinnati at Anderson House, 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. Along with George Washington, LaFayette, and others, Baron Steuben was a founding member of this military hereditary society whose membership is limited to the descendents of Continental Army officers in the American Revolution.


 

Joseph Uphues (1850–1911), a once famous German sculptor, created the original marble statue of Frederick the Great (1740-1786) in 1899. It was originally part of the monumental statuary on the Siegesallee in Berlin's Tiergarten. A copy of the statue can be seen today in Potsdam in the Sanssouci Palaces's Lustgarten.Kaiser Wilhelm II gave a bronze replica of the statue to President Theodore Roosevelt as a personal gift in 1904. It was unveiled November 19, 1904 at the Army War College in Washington D.C. (now known as Fort Lesley J. McNair, 4th and P Streets, SW, Terrace). As the Smithsonian American Art Museum reports: "During World War I, the sculpture was removed from public view (April 15, 1918) in response to congressional and public comments, as well as threats to destroy it. The sculpture was returned to its base on November 29, 1927, but was removed again during World War II. It remained in storage until March 1954 when it was relocated to the old parade grounds at Carlisle Barracks. The sculpture was restored in 1981 by Eleftherios Karkadoulias."
[From the Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture]

A nearby bronze plaque reads:

FREDERICK THE GREAT

THIS BRONZE STATUE OF FREDERICK THE
GREAT, PRUSSIAN EMPEROR OF 18TH CENTURY,
WAS PRESENTED TO THE UNITED STATES BY
KAISER WILHELM II OF GERMANY AS A GESTURE
OF GOOD-WILL. THE STATUE WAS FIRST UNVEILED
19 NOVEMBER 1904, BY PRESIDENT THEODORE
ROOSEVELT AT THE ARMY WAR COLLEGE, IN
WASHINGTON, D.C. THE STATUE WAS MOVED
TO CARLISLE BARRACKS, ON 31 MARCH 1954.
Albert Jaegers, Sculptor
Little-known is the fact that a replica of the statue of Baron Steuben was created at the same time as the original and presented by the Congress of the United States to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Nation in 1911. The gift was in return for a statue of Frederick the Great by Joseph Uphues that was presented by the German emperor to President Theodore Roosevelt and the people of the United States in 1904. For many years, this statue stood at Fort McNair in Washington, but public opinion during World War I and again during World War II caused it to be removed. In 1954, the statue was taken to the grounds of the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The history of the Steuben replica in Potsdam and Berlin is a story in itself that reflects the whole tortuous history of German-American relations in the 20th century. Commemorating German-American friendship since the American Revolution at the time of its unveiling in a place of special honor near the imperial Stadtschloss in Potsdam, the statue stood there until bombs pushed it off its pedestal during World War II.

At the time of its unveiling in 1911, the replica of the statue of Baron Steuben commemorated German-American friendship, as yet unbroken since the American Revolution. Two German-Americans, Richard Bartholdt, Congressman from Missouri, and Charles B. Wolffram, a prominent New Yorker, led the U.S. delegation on behalf of the Congress and President Taft. The festivities were held on a German holiday--the anniversary of Napoleon III's surrender at Sedan, associated with the unification of the German states and the establishment of the German Empire. The usefulness of this token sculpture of Steuben as a crossover point between Prussian imperial and military traditions on the one hand and ethnic Germans in the American republic (by 1911 also a colonial power) on the other becomes clear. In its heavy protective cloak and aristocratic hat, Jaegers' statue of Steuben allows the people at its feet to find a common ground where they can intermingle values, emotions, and politics that are otherwise difficult to blend: concepts of fatherland, discipline, bravery, stoicism, old Prussian nobility, and new German imperialism meet the American revolution, new wealth, young democracy, and populist German-American ethnic pride.

Positioned in a place of special honor near the imperial Stadtschloss in Potsdam, the statue stood there until bombs pushed it off its pediment on April 14-15, 1945, as World War II drew to an end in Europe (May 8) with the victory of the Allied Forces.

Following Germany's capitulation, Potsdam--largely unbombed in comparison with nearby Berlin--became famous as the location of the Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945) that brought U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (replaced during the conference by the new Prime Minister, Clement Atlee), and the Soviet Union's Premier Joseph Stalin together to discuss the future of the war in Asia and decide the fate of Europe. The leaders met in the Cecilienhof Palace, built during World War I for German Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife, Cecilie von Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Today, the rooms in which the fate of the postwar world was decided are set aside as a museum, while the rest of the former palace is a hotel. Naturally enough, given the physical and moral devastation that surrounded them, the survivors were little concerned with the fate of the Steuben Monument.

The division of Germany and Berlin into American, British, French, and Russian zones left imperial Potsdam--and the statue of Steuben--in the Russian zone, which later became the German Democratic Republic. After many years of internal debate about preserving the city's historic core--about half of which was severely damaged in the April 14, 1945 bombing--the GDR's government decided to retain and rebuild only a small part of it and thus get rid of what some saw as a reminder of Prussian militarism. In 1959-60, fifteen years after bombing had seriously damaged the building, the surviving ruins of the Stadtschloss were blown up and destroyed, leaving only outbuildings.

The statue of Steuben was placed in storage--Steuben being politically ambiguous at best in the GDR as a sign of Prussian military tradition and a sign of German-American friendship to boot. Somehow the statue made its way to West Berlin and in May 1987, as part of Berlin's 750 Year Anniversary, the statue was re-erected--thanks to the financial support of several German and American companies--in a green space on Clay-Allee across the street from the US Army's headquarters. The pedestal carries the following explanatory inscription:

FRIEDRICH WILHELM VON STEUBEN

PREUSSISCHER OFFIZIER UNTER FRIEDRICH DEN
GROSSEN, UNTER GEORGE WASHINGTON
GENERALINSPEKTEUR UND KÄMPFER FÜR DIE
FREIHEIT DER VEREINIGTEN STAATEN. DAS
URBILD DIESES DENKMALS GESCHNITTEN VON
ALBERT JAEGERS STEHT IN WASHINGTON
EINE ABFORMUNG STAND ALS GESCHENK
DES KONGRESSES DER USA VON 1911 BIS
1945 IN POTSDAM. HIER NEUERRICHTET 1987
AUS ANLASS DER 750-JAHRFEIER BERLINS
ALS ZEICHEN DER FREUNDSCHAFT ZWISCHEN
DEM DEUTSCHEN UND DEM AMERIKANISCHEN
VOLK MIT UNTERSTÜTZUNG DER
BERLINER BANK AG WACKER-CHEMIE GMBH
AMERICAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE IN GERMANY
PAN AMERICAN WORLD AIRWAYS INC.
STIFTUNG PREUSSISCHER KULTURBESITZ

BERLIN IM MAI 1987

This would seem to be the end of the story, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the unification of the two Germanies, Potsdam--now seat of the government of Land Brandenburg--has been seeking to re-imagine, recover and restore its history. As part of that effort, the once-famous Steuben Monument was re-installed not far from its original setting, this time behind the "Marstall," originally built in 1685 as an orangerie and transformed into stables in 1714, the sole surviving section of the imperial Stadtschloss. Since 1981, the stable-buildings themselves, beautifully restored, have housed the film museum, originally the Film Museum of the German Democratic Republic, now the Filmmuseum Potsdam.

One replica of Albert Jaegers's statue, presented by the American Congress in 1911, has become three: one in Berlin, a second in Potsdam, and another in Magdeburg. The monument has had a complicated life in its short history, but it apparently continues to speak in the mysterious language of culture, politics, and history.

Albert Jaegers, Sculptor

The statue of Steuben in Washington's LaFayette Park is the work of the German-born artist Albert Jaegers, who was born on March 28, 1868 in Elberfeld, since 1929 a section of the city of Wuppertal (North Rhine-Westphalia). Jaegers emigrated to the United States as a child and grew up in the heavily German-American city of Cincinnati, where he found work in an architect's office and became a self-taught artist. His younger sister, Augustine Jaegers, was also a prominent sculptor. In 1889, he moved to New York. In 1912, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.Jaegers was clearly a prominent and successful artist. In the obituary published after the artist's death on July 22, 1925, the New York Times noted that "Mr. Jaegers won various competitions by decision of the National Sculpture Society and his rise to prominence became so rapid that he was soon executing many works for the United States Government, among these were statuary for the Buffalo and St. Louis Expositions, the new Custom House in New York City and the Baron von Steuben statue for Washington, D.C." Prior to the unveiling of the Steuben Monument's replica in Potsdam, Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded Jaegers the fourth-class Order of the Red Eagle.

In addition to the Steuben statue, Jaegers is known for the monument to Francis Daniel Pastorius, located in Vernon Park in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The Pastorius Monument commemorates the founding of Germantown in 1683 and was funded jointly by the US Congress and the German-American Alliance; its cornerstone was laid in 1908 on the 225th anniversary of the founding. Jaegers designed the monument in 1912 and it was completed by 1917, but American entry into World War I in that year led to the finished monument being encased in a wooden box; it was finally dedicated in November, 1920.

Jaegers sculpted another work with a similar fate: his cornice sculpture entitled "Germany," created in 1907 for the United States Customs House in New York as one of twelve sculptures symbolizing commercial and seafaring powers of the ancient and modern worlds, was altered and renamed "Belgium" in 1918. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, the piece "was orginally a woman leaning on an antique shield inscribed with the word 'Kiel' which was the insignia of Kaiser Wilhelm."

The New York Times recounted:

Shortly after America's entrance into the World War, [Jaegers] declined a request coming from [Treasury] Secretary McAdoo to alter his statue representing Germany above the main cornice of the New York Custom House, to become a symbol for America's ally, Belgium. Although his refusal at the time was attributed to his having previously been decorated by the German Kaiser, Mr. Jaegers explained his attitude before the National Sculpture Society by declaring that it was manifestly impossible to change the significance of the existing statue by "a little camouflage with a relabel." He also said that the proposed expedient was indeed "a somewhat dubious honor for plucky little Belgium."