The Ernst Thälmann Monument. One of the few remaining monuments of the former DDR in Berlin.
Lonely and imposing, it dominates its surroundings – behind it a series of east german tower block flats, and to its front the dire Greifswalder Straße.
Who was Ernst Thälmann, and what did he do to deserve this giant bust….. and why does he kind of look like Lenin?
*Warning – Ernst Thälmann Info*
Ernst Thälmann was born on the 16th of April 1886 in Hamburg and rose up to party ranks of the KPD – the Communist Party of Germany to become its Vice Chairman and member of the Reichstag in 1924 and finally becoming the Chairman in 1925. After running for President in the same year, his candidacy only managed to split the vote among leftists and liberals and enabled Paul von Hindenburg to be elected as President. The KPD was heavily influenced ( read controlled by Stalin) and Ernst Thälmann had become his puppet of choice.
Whilst Thälmann sought a confrontational course with the Social Democrats, he vehemently campaigned against Hindenburg and Hitler. In 1932 he ran for President again, but only gained 10% of the votes (ironically a large portion of the communists had voted for Hindenburg) and lost to Hindenburg again. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Thälmann propositioned that the SPD and KPD unite in a workers strike to overthrow Hitler but this attempt failed. The KPD was banned in 1933 and Ernst Thälmann was arrested by the Gestapo as a Political Agitator and imprisoned in solitary confinement. Despite his imprisonment, Thälmann became a central figure, a rallying point in the Socialist Doctrine. After 11 years of solitary confinement – Thälmann was moved to the Buchenwald Concentration camp under Hitlers orders and shot. His death was then subsequently blamed on an allied bombing raid on the concentration camp.
After the war, the DDR named workers unions, factories streets and schools after Thälmann (and the other Communists who had been killed during the National Socialist regime). The most prominent use of Thälmanns name was for the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation – a hardcore version of the Boyscouts – less outdoorsy and more political. Even Cuba had a soft spot for Ernst Thälman and named one of the islands in the Bay of Pigs after him – Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann.
Between 1981 and 1986, the soviet sculptor Lew Jefimowitsch Kerbel was commissioned to create a bust of Ernst Thälmann.
The 14-meter high and 15 meter wide Monument was constructed out of 200 separate pieces of bronze which totaled up to a weight of 50 tons, and stands on a pedestal of ukrainian granite. Interestingly enough, while the sculpture was being cast, not a single bronze bust or statue was created in east germany because the entire stock of bronze was used up for the Ernst Thälmann Monument. The image of Thälmann was used to portray him in the light of a constant revolutionary – and in this light it seems like the sculptor Kerbel was influenced more than just a bit by the image of the other great constant revolutionary Lenin.
The Monument played a vital role in the socialist dogma as it served as a rallying point for all sorts of announcements and gatherings, especially for Thälmanns birthday and the anniversary of his murder. To this day small meetings are held in front of the bust, but they rarely ever attract more than a dozen die-hard socialists.
After the reunification of Germany, historians working for the Berlin Senate recommended that the statue should be torn down (if you want to build a memorial, do it like this). Instead of it being torn down, the city removed the bronze propaganda plaques and placed them into storage. The giant bust remained in place and while several council meetings were held, none came to a substantial conclusion as to how and when the sculpture should be removed.
In the years that followed it became a frequent target for vandalism and graffiti (and still is today) – and ironically it somehow ended up on the list of protected monuments. This didn’t change much though as it was still slowly rotting away, without a soul caring.
The residents in the tower blocks behind the Thälmann Monument decided form a coalition to stop the urban decay of the monument, and in 2006 the city finally owned up to its responsibility and is taking care of all restoration and cleaning efforts.
The Ernst Thälmann Monument is definitely worth a visit – as its one of the few remaining relics of the DDR still standing today, and its close proximity to Alexanderplatz makes it an ideal spot for a quick photo opportunity.
Ernst Thälmann Denkmal
Greifswalder Straße, 10405 Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg
How to Get there:
M4 and M10 Tramstop – Greifswalder Straße/Danziger Straße. (The M4 Tram stops at Alexanderplatz).
Nice write-up. I am really enjoying reading these pieces.
Ive been a bit lazy with them so far as I havent had much time – but I hope to publish more of them during the winter weeks as I wont be able to do much urban exploring.
I look forward to reading them. You are picking great places to visit. I definitely want to visit some myself to do some photography.
This is the first of several Berlin Monuments that I took photos of three years ago.. Someone is looking after it as my photos I have show a huge spray painted ” ONE ” in Graffiti on the base of the statue that’s been hosed off…I hope that the lonely statue survives Berlin’s gentrification as Ernest Thalmann was a well known victim of the Nazi’s. ( there’s a plaque to him, in Buchenwald on the wall where he was executed by the Nazis – Cruelly after being shown the Crematorium they were going to destroy his body in ) The Statue shows the polarization of Berlin’s history – that’s become one of the reasons why people visit and tour the city, now that it’s been 20 some years since reunification.
Theres graffiti on it every other week, and then the city has to come and clean it off again. a very silly game of cat and mouse. The statue has a “protected” status (for what its worth) so its not going anywhere. Interestingly enough the statue was very controversial even during the DDR, many people thought it was too large and oppulent.
Speaking of plaques, Thälman has 2 stolpersteine dedicated to him, one in front of the house he was born in, and another one in front of the City Hall in Hamburg.
there is a 3rd that I know of…a small plaque to him on the wall of the crematorium in Buchenwald Concentration camp… I saw the huge Statue first.. and the little memorial second… And It made me wonder more about him….
It’s the same to me. As a student visiting the DDR in 1976, I was impressed by the plaque in Buchenwald, and the many flowers and photo’s around it. Maybe partly because of DDR propaganda, but still impressive to me.
Jeez. I used to live so close to this one and I had never heard of it. Shame on me
Haha how could you miss this? Its so huge!
I love this statue…. And the various different, transitory attacks of graffiti help make it even more interesting. It’s a rare example of German/socialist monumentalism. As the Soviet Union’s memorials and it’s warsaw pact members memorials to their version of history erode over time, I hope this huge bronze statue remains… As it’s enigmatic pose continues to make people who see it for the first time explore the past of the man embodied in the bust, and the lost future it exulted.
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Really nice website, I’ve realised I’m far behind really getting to know the city! Thanks!
Thanks Karolina! Always happy to get feedback from readers that enjoy the content 🙂
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