(Dis)Placement of German Heritage in New Ulm, Minnesota

A copper statue sits atop a large rotunda against a blue sky.

This essay about German heritage and settler colonial inscription is the eighth piece in the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.

A 102-foot-tall monument stands outside New Ulm, Minnesota, topped by a figure in a winged helmet. The figure is a statue of Hermann, or Arminius. He stands with a boot on a Roman centurion’s helmet—a nod to his role in defeating three Roman legions in 9AD. Hermann came to this watchful position in 1889 and has triumphantly raised his sword eastward, over New Ulm and the Minnesota River valley, ever since.

How did this monument to German national heritage, known in New Ulm as “Hermann the German,” get to the Minnesota prairie? And what does Hermann’s watchful position over New Ulm—stolen Dakota homelands— reveal about settler colonialism and the geography of memory? Here, we examine how the narratives that surround this little-known figure in broader American culture instantiates the complex history of exiling Dakota from their homelands.

Who is Hermann?

Hermann statue (or “Hermannsdenkmal”) in Detmold, Germany. Photo by Racio Rosenberg, 2015.

How did Arminius get to New Ulm? A mutual aid society for German immigrants called the Sons of Hermann commissioned this monument to replicate the Hermann statue in Detmold, Germany. Both statues evoke several heroic German narratives from Arminius to Martin Luther to Siegfried, the dragon-slayer.

Most pointedly, Hermann represents Arminius, the German Chieftain known as “the liberator of Germany” who “threw down the challenge to the Roman nation” and battled bravely in a war “without defeat.”

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Arminius captured the imagination of German humanists and reformers, including Martin Luther. In fact, Luther himself may have been responsible for translating Arminius into “Hermann.” In his interpretation of Psalm 82, Luther decries the Latin use of Arminius and insists he instead be called Hermann, because he is a war leader ready to lead and protect his people. (In German, “Heer” means army, and “Mann” stands for leader.) Thus, the Germanic hero of antiquity who challenged imperial Rome and prevailed became Hermann, defender of the German people, a symbol around which a community (the “Germans”) could begin defining and imagining itself.

After Luther, plays and poems about Hermann and the “Hermannsschlacht” (Hermann’s famous victory) proliferated. Notable composers such as Georg Friedrich Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Heinrich Biber contributed to the 75 operas that were written on the theme between 1679 and 1910.

The figure of Hermann/Arminius gained significant popularity in the nineteenth century. Intellectual circles enthusiastically embraced Germanic medieval literature, especially the Lay of the Nibelungs, which some Germans wanted to celebrate as the German national epic—Germany’s Iliad, so to speak. There was also interest in seeking proof that the hero of the Lay of the Nibelungs, Siegfried, was based on Arminius. For German nationalists, Siegfried the smith became a symbol for forging a new German nation.

These heroic settler stories, however, obscure the fact that Minnesota is Dakota homeland.

The German Americans who advocated for creating a replica of the Hermann monument in New Ulm in the 1880s might not have known the histories of Tacitus, just as they might not have known Luther’s etymology of Arminius the war leader in his discussion of Psalm 82. But Hermann’s conflation with Martin Luther and with German defiance nonetheless persists in the United States. For Minnesota Lutherans, the figure of Hermann brandishing his sword might echo Martin Luther’s defiant opposition to Rome and to the Catholic Church. Even today, we might “hear” overtones of Luther’s refusal to recant his 95 Theses in 1521. In fact, the statue’s depiction of Hermann, holding his sword aloft, appeared in a satirical publication called the Kladderadatsch side-by-side with Martin Luther. Together, they offer a promise to protect the bodies and souls of present and future generations of Germans.

Whether these stories were known then, or whether they are known now, the statue in New Ulm evokes them doubly: in depicting Arminius and in replicating the Detmold monument. The Minnesota statue reinforces deep cultural links to Arminius not just as a Roman resistance fighter or defender of liberty, but also as a representative of German/Germanic culture and heritage.

Photo of the Hermann statue, which is green with age. He wears long robes over a tunic, a winged helmet, and holds a sword aloft in one arm.
Closeup of “Hermann the German” at the top of the Hermann Heights monument in New Ulm, MN. Photo by Greg Gjerdingen, 2021.

Inscribing Minnesota with German-ness

In New Ulm, the heroic narratives around Arminius and German nationalism speak to settler colonial logics of memory. German settlers drew upon the heroism of Arminius and the German nationalism he represents to solidify their identity as heirs of that European legacy in the United States. German settlers sought to define their place in nineteenth-century American society by borrowing models from the homeland they had left. The heroic unification of the German Reich under Bismarck, emerging triumphantly from the chaos of war, would have been a point of pride to German settlers defining their place in nineteenth-century America. With their monument in New Ulm, the Sons of Hermann connect their story to those of Arminius, a unifying hero, and of Siegfried, the legendary dragon-slayer. They thereby insist on the importance and relevance of German heritage in the face of anti-immigrant hostilities from American nativists.

These heroic settler stories, however, obscure the fact that Minnesota is Dakota homeland. The violent dispossession of Dakota homelands made it possible for Germans to settle here, which ultimately led to the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War and the largest mass execution in American history: thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato on December 26, 1862 for their part in the war. In 2005, a group of horseback riders began the annual Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Ride to remember the event. Since then, riders set out from present-day reservations in South Dakota and arrive at Reconciliation Park in Mankato every year on the 26th of December. Many of the riders belong to families of those executed. 

When the Sons of Hermann unveiled their statue on the prairie in 1889, they advanced their own claim to belonging in Minnesota. As an expression of German “heritage” on the Minnesota prairie, the Hermann monument is an example of of settler colonial inscription. Settler colonialism is a form of oppression in which settlers make space for themselves by “permanently and ecologically inscrib[ing] homelands of their own onto Indigenous homelands.” Territory can become a meaningful homeland for settlers when they write their stories, cultural narratives, and systems into the environmental dimensions of a place. Thus, the Hermann monument perpetuates cultural erasure and the appropriation of Indigenous homelands by asserting a German claim to them.

Bird's eye view lithograph of the sparse settlement of New Ulm, Minnesota in 1870. The map is in perspective and shows squared off roads lined with tiny buildings, near the bank of a river.
Bird’s eye view of New Ulm, MN in 1870, showing the signature squared plots of Midwestern settler colonialism. Lithograph by A. Ruger, 1870.

Through this claim, Hermann becomes a representative of German autochthony; in other words, settlers’ claims to land are naturalized through the peoples’ intimate connection to its soil, trees, and rocks. Hermann’s narrative is articulated through autochthonous references to the Teutoberg Forest, where Hermann supposedly lived and battled against the Romans. In fact, Tacitus differentiated between the “germanii” and Roman civilization because he believed the former had a sense of honor and duty rooted in their sylvan home.

In the nineteenth century, Germans’ strong connection to the forest helped define German-ness as a kind of “woodland ethnicity.” Many Romantic artists, poets, and philosophers used the story of Hermann to depict how the organic nature of trees and forests was reflected in the evolution of the German “Volk” (“people”) and its Nation. Arboreal longevity and rootedness became symbols of a nation formed by the recirculating vitality between people and (forested) land, from sacred groves to scientifically managed pine plantations. Sylvan metaphors conceived of a German race or German people with a common (hi)story.

Hermann not only sits high, but the Heights monument takes up significant space in New Ulm. Photo by Mac H., 2017.

Autochthony expresses a deep, potent, and elemental belonging to a place. Its logic has been mobilized to denote belonging in a wide variety of contexts, including Native ones. In addition to belonging, autochthony is used to naturalize one’s privilege to certain rights in a national context. At the same time, it is used to exclude others from those rights.

In fact, settler colonialism requires autochthonic inscriptions. Settler-ecological relationships are made culturally meaningful to narrate and affirm settler efforts to replace/re-place Indigenous peoples. Anglo-American settlers sought ways of organizing and controlling settler relationships to Indigenous lands. What makes autochthony such a powerful term is its reference to the soil—the literal earth that enables life to thrive—as the locus for belonging. Hermann, having emerged from the German forests of antiquity into the German pantheon of heroes, helps legitimize settlers’ right to to the stolen soil of Minnesota. Hermann’s presence in Minnesota is an example of how German settlers claim this place for themselves, writing their story onto the landscape.

Preserving Hermann the German for America

Settlers’ claims of autochthonic connection help justify preserving the Hermann monument. In 1973, the monument was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which provided access to restoration funds in the early 2000s. In April 2000, the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, Historic Preservation, and Recreation passed a resolution that provided congressional recognition of the Hermann Monument as marking the significant contributions of Americans of German heritage. It read:

“The story of Hermann the Cheruscan parallels that of the American Founding Fathers, because he was a freedom fighter who united ancient German tribes in order to shed the yoke of Roman tyranny and preserve freedom for the territory of present-day Germany.”

By likening Hermann to the Founding Fathers, the resolution positions his battle against the tyranny of the Romans as parallel to the American Revolution. The implication is that the contemporary alliance between the U.S. and post-reunification Germany rests on the legacies of a shared struggle for democracy and freedom against foes spanning across the last two centuries—from George III to twentieth-century communism. The Hermann monument evokes an imagined progression of the German people from their barbaric origins to a modern nation-state. For Congress, the message is clear: modern Germany provides a model for other nations in the twenty-first century. Having built a new democracy from the rubble of the Second World War and having brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany is perceived to have done its part to carry the torch of freedom in the present day. 

The front of the Brown County Historical Society, which is a striped brick building in ornate colonial style, featuring a grand entrance, tall windows, and three stories.
The Brown County Historical Society museum in New Ulm, MN. Photo by Iulus Ascanius, 2003.

German settlers have intentionally placed these stories of Hermann in the same geographic space of the U.S.-Dakota War and the execution of Dakota in Mankato. The Hermann monument stands directly in line with the the Brown County Historical Society building and the Defenders Monument—an obelisk which commemorates the settlers who died “defending” New Ulm during the war. (Interestingly, the obelisk is also located in front of the municipal building that includes the county court and police department.) The Brown County Historical Society building showcases permanent museum exhibits on the German settlement in New Ulm, and particularly how these settlers turned the city into an economic hub of the Minnesota River Valley.

If visitors trek up to the third floor, they will find the entire space dedicated to the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Here, visitors will learn some Native history: how the Dakota people resisted being confined to reservations, how they were forced to adapt to the new arrivals, and how they dealt with corrupt Federal Indian Agents who withheld food and annuity payments. But this exhibit remains relegated to the top level of the museum, as if it is only a small part of the story and secondary to the perspectives of Brown County settlers. The story that this geography of memory tells is one where the Dakota no longer have a place in New Ulm, or Minnesota.

The Hermann monument perpetuates cultural erasure and the appropriation of Indigenous homelands by asserting a German claim to them.

Placing a monument to victors re-articulates the displacement of those who were dispossessed and anchors that displacement ideologically through the cultural narratives which the figure of Hermann embodies. In New Ulm, Hermann has stepped out of the German woods of myth and onto the Minnesota prairie. His presence there connects German settlers to the mythical past from which their people ostensibly emerged and evolved. The monument instantiates their desire to extinguish Indigenous relationships to their homelands, while simultaneously establishing meaningful ecological relationships for settlers to uphold their own claims to autochthony.  

Hermann’s ongoing presence in New Ulm etches settler claims to belonging prominently onto the landscape of Minnesota. The stories of German nationhood that he embodies contend with Indigenous peoples’ long-standing relationships with their own homelands. Hermann imposes his vigilance over the same prairie across which the Wokiksuye Riders have ridden each December for seventeen years. While the Wokiksuye ride is an invitation for reconciliation, Hermann’s outstretched sword reinforces settler colonial violence.

Featured image: The Hermann the German monument outside of New Ulm, Minnesota. Photo by Brett Whaley, 2014.

Ryan Hellenbrand is a PhD student in Environment and Resources at UW-Madison. His research focuses on the intersecting cultural histories of forest management in Native Nations and the German development of scientific forestry. His dissertation project, Towards a Silvicultura Autochthonica: Inscribing German Settler-Ecologies in the Upper Midwest, compares two case studies of restoration and forestry at Indian Lake County Park and the creation of the Forestry Department at Menominee Tribal Enterprises. Contact.

Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand is Professor of German and Global Studies at Appalachian State University.  Her teaching includes a wide range of courses from fairy tales to German language and culture as well as Arthurian literature and contemporary global issues. Her research focuses on medievalism, monuments, and the afterlives of medieval German literature from the Middle Ages to the present. Contact.