200 years on, Leipzig recalls the Battle of Nations
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, who last week wrote about Leipzig for EuroCheapo, return to the city in eastern Germany with the second of four reports.
Leipzig was not the best place to be 200 years ago this week. From October 16-19, 1813, European history was shaped in the meadows just south of the city. Over 500,000 soldiers fought over the future of their continent.
The Battle of Nations was one of the decisive conflicts — many would say the most decisive one — of the Napoleonic Wars. France had triumphed over five opposing coalitions, before stumbling at Borodino in 1812 (where Napoleon may nominally have won but his forces suffered grave losses in the process) and then being defeated at Leipzig in October 1813.
Some 110,000 men lost their lives at Leipzig. A similar number suffered terrible injuries. The citizens of Leipzig were not mere onlookers in the conflict. In the days and weeks after the battle, the city endured major epidemics. Richard Wagner’s father died from typhus in Leipzig that fall, and before long the Wagner family had left the city. We can but speculate how the course of musical and operatic history might have evolved if the Wagner family had stayed in Leipzig.
Recalling the victims of war
The Battle of Nations is recalled in Leipzig today in a number of monuments. The most beautiful is the Russian Orthodox church at the northern margin of the former battlefield. The church, dedicated to the 14th-century Metropolitan Alexej of Moscow was built by workers from Russia and its opening coincided with the centenary of the Battle of Nations. In the victorious coalition at Leipzig, Russia paid the highest price in terms of war dead.
But the most striking is the more secular memorial erected by the German authorities to also mark the centenary of the battle. At the time, it was Europe’s largest monument and it remains mightily impressive today. There are the predictable flaming swords and firebrands of war. But there are also intensely beautiful sculptures inside the monument where the Hall of Fame has eight huge death masks, attended by sixteen warriors with their heads lowered in mourning.
The monument to the Battle of Nations
The monument is a short tram ride southeast from the city centre. It is worth going at a time when the interior is open to the public, as you can then climb up through the galleries to reach the viewing platform on top of the monument. It affords a magnificent panorama of Leipzig. Opening times are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily in summer (and from just 10 a.m.-4 p.m. from November through March).
This monument alone is good cause to make tracks for Leipzig. But there are many more besides and we shall look at other features of the city in two further articles this month on Leipzig.