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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Marx-Engels Forum: A Timeless Memorial

Updated: Jun 24

The Marx-Engels Forum is a memorial complex for the former GDR. AApart from the political message of the time, the positive memories of East Germany's abandonment will be remembered. Therefore, a visit is not deemed necessary.

A Visit is Optional

The 1970s were a challenging period for East Germany. The economy was no longer viable and remained reliant on Soviet aid. The regime was stagnant, with a privileged bureaucracy out of touch with the country's social realities. The new generation hadn't experienced the heroic times of socialism's construction. They were at best disinterested, at worst protesting.

As a result, the convergence of social contradictions and economic hardships led to an identity crisis from which the GDR would not recover. In its final years, the ruling party desperately tried to return to its roots by combining tradition and ideology. Socialist ideals had to be flattered and anchored in a German national dimension, not just a Soviet one. The GDR asserted its right to exist.

The capital became a vast construction site. Functionalist architecture was abandoned, and the Prussian architectural heritage was rebuilt. Primarily, the Gendarmenmarkt was rehabilitated according to neoclassicism codes. The St. Nicholas district, the city's original town centre, which had been destroyed under Hitler's regime, was rebuilt. Symbolically, the heart and soul of Berlin were placed in the east. Haphazard ambitions led to prefabricated houses with reinforced concrete half-timbering. Simultaneously, a monument commemorating a communist leader murdered in a concentration camp was unveiled. Above all, in 1986, the construction of a vast Marx-Engels Forum, in honor of communism's ideological fathers: the Germans Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was completed.

A Return to the East German Past

Located in a small park near Museum Island, the Marx-Engels Forum is curiously removed from the surrounding bustle. Its space is hidden, concealed, and almost intimate.

Three artistic works make up the memorial complex. From the centre, the statues of Marx and Engels emerge, one standing, the other seated. Far from the prevailing heroic codes, the representation is human-scaled, aiming to encourage a feeling of proximity. The design was highly unpopular with the East German leaders of the time, and Gorbachev found it overly 'German'.

Behind the figures of the two theorists, a straight marble relief symbolises the old world. It represents the decadent capitalism oppressing mankind. In front of it, other reliefs, this time in bronze, more voluptuous and dynamic, display the dignity and beauty of free humanity. The brighter tomorrows pass through the theoretical contribution of the two companions on one hand, and through revolutionary action on the other.

Positioned in an arc around the statue, eight flat steel columns present the history of the workers' movement through a hundred or so photographs embedded in the metal. They depict council democracy, trade unionism, women's liberation, mass literacy, industrial progress through collectivisation, and the conquest of space. From theory to practice, the symbols are potent.

The staging is quite remarkable by the canons of the time. It would perhaps be just as remarkable today if the memorial had not been victim to a rewriting exercise.

History is Written by the Winners

German reunification raised the issue of the East German legacy and its place in the emerging national narrative. Unlike Lenin's statue, those of Marx and Engels remained in place due to their German roots. However, they remained very potent and contradictory ideological symbols. There was local resistance, less out of political conviction than in the name of defending the GDR's architectural heritage. But the march had begun.

The first step was to abandon and then demolish the Palace of the Republic, one of the high places of East German power. The disappearance of this imposing building left Marx and Engels somewhat orphaned. In a second phase, the plans for the extension of the underground railway in 2010 allowed for the forum's rearrangement. The maneuver reduced the forum to a small portion and enclosed it in a green space cut off from the outside world. Importantly, it reversed the order and meaning of the ensembles. The reliefs of oppression were placed to the east and those of universal happiness to the west. The statues were flipped, so Marx and Engels now turned their backs on the television tower, on the GDR, and preferred to look westwards.

The Marx-Engels Forum is a striking ideological symbol. It's customary in history for newly hegemonic forces to erase their predecessors' traces. The East German regime lived on. The only question that needs to be asked is whether its memorials are historical objects. If they are, they belong in museum complexes as heritage. As it stands, the Marx-Engels Forum stresses the lack of memorial neutrality. It also invites the visitor to be cautious: a confirmation of the present does not require a reinterpretation of its past. The future of the site remains uncertain.

Reasons to Visit

  • A rather relevant staging

  • A surprising sense of intimacy

  • A symbol of a bygone era

Reasons to Skip

  • A complete lack of information

  • An obvious lack of intellectual honesty

  • A place destined to disappear


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