What could Karl Marx have to do with Charlottesville? At an historic moment when debates rage about the fate of memorials across much of the United States, it is instructive to explore how the politics of memory have evolved for contentious monuments on another continent. In communist East Germany, oxidized brass and copper semblances of long-deceased personages were also elevated and then, after 1989, eliminated due to connotations rooted in public traumas that transcended the man (occasionally woman) represented and honored. Perhaps one of the most controversial instances in the political lives of dead men’s monuments took place in Leipzig, East Germany’s second-largest city, on a central site which throughout the Cold War was named Karl Marx Square. Here the 33-ton bronze relief Aufbruch (its full name: Karl Marx and the Revolutionary, World-Shattering Essence of his Teachings) had been hoisted up over the main entrance of the Karl Marx University for the East German state’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1974. After the fall of communism in 1989, some proposed smashing the Marx relief or melting it down, but in the end it was simply exiled to a remote piece of university property. Today any who seek it out can take in its historically distinctive artisanship alongside an inscription that speaks to the fraught context in which it first came into existence.
The decision to put a gargantuan memorial to Marx on the square that bore his name took place after one of the largest instances of public protest in East German history. Despite eight years of letter-writing that peaked with crowds of dissenters on Karl Marx Square, Leipzig’s fully intact medieval University Church was dynamited on May 30, 1968 to almost unanimous applause from communist bureaucrats, modern architects, and university authorities. Although the dust settled quickly, this flagrant outrage decried as “cultural barbarism” sustained an aura of discontent up through 1989 that undermined a sense that one could ever “work with” the authorities again.
Private resentment at the loss of this local landmark only worsened as communist leaders chose to finally erect a monument to Marx as the defining symbol for the square and the city. Earlier discussion about iconography on Karl Marx Square had resulted in a short-lived monumental figure to Stalin and drafts for a monument to Walter Ulbricht (a notion that vanished as the East German dictator drifted toward retirement). Marx had already failed as a usable symbol during the university’s celebration of the great philosopher’s 150th birthday in early May 1968. So hostile was the overall atmosphere that talks had to be delivered back-to-back to deter any discussion afterward, and most students chose to ignore the festivities altogether; turnout was often so dismal that events were simply cancelled. Disconnect thus could not have been greater when at the end of festivities the city council reiterated that the new university campus was to symbolically embody “the revolutionary and world-shattering character of Marxist teachings.” As the vice-president for student affairs declared three months after the demolition, completion of a modern architectural ensemble would finally make Leipzig’s “Karl Marx University” worthy of the name of Marx. In this spirit, the bronze Marx relief was tacked over the freshly completed entrance to the university’s new main building in 1974—right where the façade of the University Church had once stood. The Marx relief signified that Marxist ideology was to form the basis of Karl Marx University for the rest of history.
The verdict of history shifted radically, however, when Leipzigers marched on Karl Marx Square in 1989 and helped to trigger the fall of communist power. With Karl Marx expunged from its name, in 1993 the university posted a damning inscription on its main building commemorating the “arbitrary” destruction of the University Church and condemning the city and university for failing to “withstand the pressure of a dictatorial system.” This radically altered official reading of history was visually manifested in 1998 by a skeletal “installation” meant to recall the vanished University Church façade, superimposed over the Marx relief on the main building. When the slipshod box of the main building finally met the wrecking ball in 2007, it was a given that the Marx relief had no place on the reconfigured and renamed Augustus Square, which featured a postmodern citation of the University Church, its Gothic features suspended as if in an ether of glass and light at the very moment of their destruction.
However, this commemorative victory for the University Church ultimately did not mean destruction for Marx. In 2008 his likeness was safely banished to a remote courtyard on the university’s sport campus. And in contrast to fears that Marx might become a target for vandalism or communist nostalgia, the 1974 monument has enjoyed peaceful obscurity. The few who manage to find it benefit from a commemorative plaque whose images and stories explain just why this memorial to a monumental German philosopher was driven from the square that had once borne his name: an ignominy that had little to do with the teachings of Marx himself.
Headline image credit: Neues Rathaus in Leipzig seen from the MDR tower by Concord. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.