A few weeks ago, Gunter and I visited the Southern Minnesota German town of New Ulm. “As a German, you’ll love seeing a statue of Hermann right here in the United States,” our bed-and-breakfast hostess encouraged. After exploring the charming village, we drove to the park on the hill and to view the 102-foot monument overlooking the city. I’d never heard of Hermann. Now his story, as well as that of the monument, and the town’s German history, fascinates me.

Example of German Architecture in New Ulm

Example of German Architecture in New Ulm

Hermann led Germanic resistance fighters against the Romans, defeating them in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. Now a symbol of German patriotism, Hermann had been a slave chieftain named Armnius the Cherusci; (He was much later re-named “Hermann” by Martin Luther). He turned against his masters and led a ragtag army to victory over three Roman legions, thereby saving Germania from conquest. Rome was out, thanks to Hermann the German.

New Ulm was settled by a large contingent of Germans in the 19th century, and they decided to model the Hermann statue after a similar one near Detmold, Germany. So, Hermann the German has brandished his Teutonic battle sword over New Ulm since 1897.

Hermann the German Monument, New Ulm, Minnesota

Hermann the German Monument, New Ulm, Minnesota

New Ulm’s 32-foot-tall rendition of the warrior is the third largest copper statue in the United States (after the Statue of Liberty and Portlandia in Portland, Oregon). The monument features Hermann atop a pedestal above a cupola supported by ten columns. A spiral staircase winds around a 70-foot-tall center iron column up into the cupola. We walked around the ironwork surrounding Hermann. That’s as close as we could get. He’s been refurbished and protected, but that’s another story. After enduring a century of harsh Minnesota winters, a freak windstorm that sheared off one of his helmet wings, and sharpshooting by pre-teens during World War II who, with their older brothers off to war, wanted to “shoot a German,” Hermann was suffering from battle fatigue.

Nearby Flandrau State Park, on the Cottonwood River, had yet another story to tell. The park was originally developed in the 1930s as a job creation project to provide a recreational reservoir. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) built several structures in a rustic styles designed to reflect the ethnic German heritage of New Ulm. Ironically, the WPA barracks were reused during World War II as Camp New Ulm, one of the nine Minnesota camps housing German prisoners of war.

About 160 German POWs arrived at Camp New Ulm in June of 1944. Mostly members of the Luftwaffe, they ranged in age from 18-25. The POWs primarily worked in the nearby town of Sleepy Eye at a cannery, which paid the rent on the camp. After the harvest season, prisoners worked at a poultry processing plant and brick and tile factories. Small groups were hired out to local farms, unguarded, as short-term farmworkers.

The location of Camp New Ulm outside a town with a strong German heritage was a lucky break for the POWs. Many locals still spoke German and were sympathetic toward the prisoners (and hoping in many cases for news of relatives and the old country). German-speaking church officials held Lutheran and Catholic services in the camp and handed out donated reading material. Although the guards warned civilians that they were not to have contact with the POWs, food was slipped over the fence, cannery workers shared ice cream and beer, and more than one young woman waded across the river at night to flirt at the camp. POWs out on weeklong farm details fared best of all, often partaking of home-cooked meals at the family dinner table.

Prisoner Helmut Lichtenberg, who had become friendly with a farm family he’d worked for, arranged to slip out of camp and spend much of a weekend with them. Mindless of the severity of the infraction, the farmer and his mother-in-law drove Lichtenberg into camp Sunday afternoon, where they were stopped by guards. Lichtenberg was punished with solitary confinement; the Americans were ultimately fined $300 each and lectured by the judge. Their testimony indicated that other prisoners undertook such forays, but they were not charged. This became the camp’s one and only documented escape incident.

For recreation, the POWs enjoyed a clubhouse with a fireplace and library, a camp store, a sports field, and a workshop where they made their own furniture and sporting equipment. They were allowed to swim and fish in part of Cottonwood Lake. Further entertainment included newspapers, radios, and weekly movie screenings. Some musical instruments were gathered, and locals came to listen and sing along to Sunday afternoon concerts. It was not a bad life!

Camp New Ulm closed in December 1945 and all of the internees were eventually repatriated to Germany. One of the former prisoners later immigrated to the United States, however, settling in Wisconsin. The camp remains in use as the state park’s group center.

View from Hermann Heights, New Ulm

View from Hermann Heights, New Ulm

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