The year 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, as well as the 170th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. Few people have had such a lasting – and controversial – effect on world history. While many can debate about the pros and cons of communism, and even if communism today is what Marx had actually envisioned, his legacy (and that of Friedrich Engels) undoubtedly can still be felt today. 28 years have now passed since the East German Volkskammer voted to reunify with its Western counterpart – we asked ourselves how much of Karl Marx’s presence can still be felt in the former East German capital.
Karl Marx Erinnerungsstätte Stralau
The Karl Marx Erinnerungsstätte in Stralau – also known as the Karl Marx Denkmal or the Karl Marx Gedenkstätte, was part of a larger memorial project of the East German government. On the 15th Anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in 1964), the Government decided to memorialize important stations of Karl Marx’s life. The memorial, created by the Berlin sculptor Hans Kies, consists of two large stone half-reliefs. The first one depicts a side profile of Karl Marx in his later years on one side, while the reverse side depicts Marx in his younger years explaining the virtues of Communism to visitors in a Beer Garden.
The other part of the memorial is engraved with Marx’s 11th Feuerbach thesis:
German: „Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern“
English: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
While the reverse is relief dedicated to the general strike of the German glassworkers which initiated here in 1901, who were inspired by the works of Marx.
But what does all this have to do with Stralau? Well, Karl Marx spent 5 years (1836 – 1841) in Berlin studying law at the University of Berlin. While he lived in various apartments in Berlin, he spent the months between April and September 1837 on the Stralau peninsula. Marx’s health wasn’t the best at the time, so his doctor recommended that he move out of the city and recoup by the water. He probably would have stayed longer in Stralau if a cholera epidemic hadn’t broken out at the end of the summer in 1837 – forcing him to move back into Berlin.
Karl-Marx-Büste Straußberger Platz
Berlins only bust of Karl Marx is fittingly located at Straußberger Platz – one of the main squares that connects the massive Karl-Marx-Allee with the Platz der Vereinten Nationen (formerly known as Leninplatz). The Karl-Marx-Allee was THE prestige project of the GDR. The roughly 3-kilometer-long boulevard was known as the Große Frankfurter Straße until it was renamed Stalinallee in 1949 for Stalin’s 70th Birthday. At the same time the bombed-out boulevard was completely rebuilt as a model for Socialist Classicism architecture.
The massive road which cuts through the Stalinist workers palaces not only emphasized the city’s status as the east German capital, but also proved useful for showcasing military parades and convoys. With the destalinization in 1961 (which saw the disappearance of Stalin’s Statue in a covert night operation), a large portion of the Stalinallee was renamed Karl-Marx-Allee, while another section regained its original name of Frankfurter Allee back.
The bust of Karl Marx was created by the German sculptor Will Lammert. Interestingly enough, the bust itself was only placed on Straußberger Platz in 1983 – 26 years after Lammerts death. As far as I can deduce, it seems like the bust was places here on the 100th Anniversary of Karl Marx’s death.
Marx Engels Forum
Quite possibly the most well-known of all the Karl Marx depictions in Berlin, is the oversized statue of him and Friedrich Engels in the so-called Marx-Engels-Forum between the Rotes Rathaus and Berliner Dom. After the center of Berlin was destroyed during the bombing raids of WWII, the East German Government decided to tear down the remaining buildings in the former Marienviertel.
In the 1950s, the city had originally planned to build a multi-story building like the Palace of the Soviet in Moscow or the Culture Palace in Warsaw in the area, including a 25-meter-tall statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but because of funding issues the entire project was scrapped in the early 60s. In its stead came the Palast der Republik (and right opposite of it the Staatsratsgebäude) – which ironically also turned into a massive money pit. When the architects were redesigning the center of Berlin with the TV Tower and the Palast der Republik, they used the leftover free space in 1971 as a park – the “Park an der Spree”.
This was then converted in 1983 into the Marx Engels Platz. For the 750th anniversary of Berlin, the Politbüro decided to reconstruct the historic center of Berlin (more about that in this piece -> The Socialist History of Berlin), and as a counterpoint they wanted a memorial to the founders of Communism. They chose a design by the sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt, who had actually submitted a rather unobtrusive design.
The sculptures weren’t massively oversized and weren’t erected on a plinth – but kept at eye level. Apparently, Erich Honecker visit Engelhardt’s studio at one point and asked why Marx was sitting while Engels was standing. Engelhardt responded by comparing Marx to a ruler sitting on his throne.
Honecker apparently left the statement uncommented. After a planning phase of 9 years, the Marx-Engels-Forum was officially unveiled on the 4th of April 1986, shortly before the 11th SED Party Congress. The unveiling of the statues and the forum wasn’t a massively well visited event as the local populace was rather unpleased about the fact that the newly created forum destroyed too much of the former park.
The Statue of Marx and Engels was moved in 2010 to its current location (slightly closer to the newly built Stadtschloss) as a new subway line (the U5) is being built. If the statues will be moved back to their original location after the construction has been completed is still unclear and hotly debated.
The Lenin Window
We’ve already covered “The Secret Lenin of Berlin” in a separate article before, but the glass window pops up here again. What is now the Law Faculty of the Humboldt University was originally known as the Alte Bibliothek – a public library built the Frederick the Great to house the content of the Royal library and to make it available to the masses.
The building was heavily damaged in WWII, reconstructed in 1968, and then handed over to the Humboldt University in 1969 which then moved the department for Marxism-Communism into it. To celebrate this feat, they commissioned the artist Frank Glaser to create a giant glass mosaic for the “Leninsaal” – depicting Lenin leading the revolution, whilst being inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It’s quite an impressive glass window and is worth seeing both from the outside and inside the library.
Mensch und Wissenschaft
And another lovely glass stained window. This piece, part of a tryptic by the famed Walter Womacka can be found in the main building of the Humboldt University. The Humboldt University, much like the Law Faculty across the street was heavily damaged by the air raids in 1943-44. The building went through two reconstruction phases between 1947-54 and 1958-62. It was during the second phase of renovation when Walter Womacka was tasked with creating a series of glass stained windows.
The three panels are named Mensch und Natur (Man and Nature), Mensch und Wissenschaft (Man and Science) and Mensch und Kosmos (Man and Cosmos). The middle panel named Man and Science depicts various scientific motives, along with a portrait of Lenin, the brothers Humboldt, and of course Marx and Engels.
Underneath the portrait of Marx and Engels we can again find the famous 11th Feuerbach thesis. The significance of this is of course, that Marx had studied under the Philosopher Hegel, which inspired the aforementioned quote. It’s also worth noting that the glass window also contains one of the last remaining depictions of the emblem of the German Democratic Republic.
The Neuer Marstall (New Stables) was built in 1901 directly behind the Berlin Castle as an extension of the old royal stables which had grown to accommodate over 300 horses as well as carriages and sleighs. The building housed the Volksmarinedivision during the November revolution of 1918 which led to the downfall of the German monarchy. From 1920 on, the building was used as the Berlin City Library. After being damaged during the second world war, large parts of the original outer decorations were torn down, including two rather ornamental wall fountains of Prometheus with the Okeanids and Perseus and Andromeda.
The building was then subsequently used by the East German Academy of Arts. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the November revolution in 1988, two large bronze reliefs were placed where the wall fountains once stood. The panel on the left depicts and oversized image of Karl Marx’s head with the quote “Es lebe die Soziale Revolution – Es lebe der Frieden der Völker” (Long live the social revolution – long live the peace among nations), while the other panel depicts Karl Liebknecht declaring the free Socialist Republic.
Karl Marx Straße 1
Quite possibly the smallest, and the most overlooked depiction of Karl Marx in Berlin can be found in the aptly named Karl Marx Straße in Neukölln (not to be confused with the Karl Marx Allee in Friedrichshain). The large street dating back to the 17th Century was originally known as Berliner Straße (1874-1947) and Bergstraße (1877–1947) until it was renamed Karl Marx Straße on the 31st of July 1947.
The street is known for its mix of Socialist Classicism and Gründerzeit Architecture – and it seems like the first newly built building on the Karl Marx Straße at the time had the honor of receiving a small stucco portrait of Marx above its door. In an incredibly ironic turn of fate, the Marx relief now directly looks across the street at a Deutsche Bank.
Hidden behind the gaudy advertisement of a tourist steak restaurant at Berlins Alexanderplatz – the newest Marx addition to this list reappeared in August 2021. The Escados Steakhouse was originally the Pressecafe, a cafe and restaurant attached to one of the main publishing houses – The House des Berliner Verlages – in East Germany. A 76 meter long enamel mural known as “Die Presse als Organisator” by Willi Neubert was attached to the Pressecafe in 1973 and depicted various journalists and journalistic scenes, along with a large (but apparently not large enough) depiction of Karl Marx.
The Mural was covered up in 1992 when the Pressecafe was rented out by the new buildings owners and stayed that way until the year 2021. While the mural was placed under monument protection in 2015, it took another 6 years and the close of the steakhouse to reappear. The Pressecafe is undergoing renovation until early 2022 and will reopen with shops on the ground floor and a restaurant in the first floor.
Streets, Squares and Stores named after Karl Marx in Berlin
Bonus: There are roughly 550 streets and places named after Karl Marx in East Germany, and it seems like there’s still a debate going on if they should be renamed or not. Currently Berlin has two streets, one square and one very pretty (and sadly defunct) Bookstore named after Karl Marx. I’ve decided to add them to this list for completion’s sake.
If you do know of more depictions of Marx in Berlin that I might have missed, please let me know in the comments.