Monumental Complications in Germantown

Pastorius Monument, Vernon Park, Germantown, February 3, 1921. Julius Rosenberg, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

Pastorius Monument, Vernon Park, Germantown, February 3, 1921. Albert Jaegers, sculptor; Julius Rosenberg, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

German-Americans found 1933 to be a very tricky year. An elaborate 250th anniversary celebration of Philadelphia’s Germantown settlement would again converge at the Pastorius monument. And just as Philadelphians with German ties had done ever October since the 1880s, they celebrated German Day with marches, speeches and song. But for the 15,000 paying respects in 1933, the future loomed as large as the past.

Adolf Hitler had come to power.

For this German Day, Chancellor Hitler and President Hindenburg sent celebratory telegrams. And Ambassador Hans Luther had been invited to speak. But when Luther learned that the swastika flag wouldn’t be raised—a decision the German Society of Pennsylvania apologized for as lacking in “decency and tact”—he cancelled his appearance.

Exuberant and extravagant displays by German-Americans in Philadelphia had long generated large crowds, and overwhelming pride, and they also raised hackles. Back in 1891, an Inquirer editorial urged German Day participants to “keep the celebration an American one, as it ought to be kept.” They acknowledged “the tendency to make this celebration a German celebration is a natural tendency, but, as far as possible, ought to be resisted.”

But it wasn’t resisted.

If the Peter Muhlenberg statue dedicated in 1910 at City Hall evolved as an example of contested public art, the monument to Daniel Francis Pastorius in Vernon Park would become a flash point—even before it existed. At the 225th anniversary of Germantown’s settlement in 1908, 20,000 marched in a parade leading to the site joining another 30,000 already gathered to hear 800 “united voices” of Philadelphia’s German-American singing societies and speeches in both English and German. The crowd also witnessed the unveiling of a cornerstone for the newly-commissioned monument. But the unveiling of the finished monument would be delayed twelve years. First, the commission was taken from sculptor J. Otto Schweizer, and assigned to Albert Jaegers. Then one of Jaegers’ large panels cracked in transit. Finally, dedication was put off until after the First World War.

“A wise move,” agreed one editorial.

“The Protest of the Germans of Germantown Against Slavery on February 18, 1688,” Western facade of the Pastorius Monument in Vernon Park. Albert Jaegers, sculptor.

In 1920, when the public finally got to see the Pastorius monument, critics had a field day. Its regal figure, “Miss Civilization,” looked too much like traditional Germania and not enough like known allegories of “American Independence and Progress.” The Germantown Historical Society would advocate for its removal as “crude, gross and meaningless as art or history.” During World War II, the Pastorius monument was boxed in to again remove it from public view.

Meanwhile, Germany borrowed back the name for ”Operation Pastorius,” a plan to sabotage strategic American industrial sites, including at least one in Philadelphia.

In its appropriation and obfuscation of 17th-century Pastorius, the 20th century effectively forgot the historical figure’s actual contribution. The real Pastorius – the lawyer, poet and leader—was one of the most intelligent, talented and compassionate settlers in the New World—a quality Jaegers attempted to convey in one of the monument’s four panels.

In 1683, Pastorius and others followed the Quakers to Pennsylvania and even joined the Society of Friends, fully intending to create a colony where basic human rights were understood and respected. What they found was very different: a society accepting—and an economy based on—slavery. In 1688, more than 175 years before the 13th Amendment, Pastorius and three other enlightened Germantowners composed a thorough and carefully reasoned protest and presented it to the Quaker leadership.

Interesting how a monument that’s been censored, delayed and boxed in to keep it out of the public eye becomes more potent when we become aware of the whole story.

[Sources consulted, all from The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “The Celebration of German Day,” October 11,1891; “Bronze Tablet Will Honor Memory of German Pioneers in America To be Set into Corner-Stone,”  September 23, 1908; “50,000 See Unveiling at Vernon Park” October 7, 1908; “Pastorius Statue Design Accepted,” June 8, 1913; “The Germantown Monument,” April, 27, 1917;  “Monument Repaired,” June 30, 1920; “To Speed Acceptance of Pastorius Statue,” September 26, 1920.] 

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