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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Marx-Engels Forum: A Timeless Memorial

Updated: Apr 20



The Marx-Engels Forum is a memorial complex for the former GDR. Apart 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 to the Marx-Engels Forum 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 close to Museum Island, the Marx-Engels Forum is a gigantic, empty square, devoid of vegetation or any special enhancement. The absence of any signage informing visitors about the nature of the monument and its recent history since Reunification weighs heavily on the visitor.


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 symbolizes 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 collectivization, and the conquest of space. From theory to practice, the symbols are strong, and the staging is quite remarkable for the canons of the time.

Rewriting Before Rehabilitation


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 turned upside down, so that Marx and Engels turned their backs on the television tower, on the GDR, and preferred to look westwards. It's common in history for newly hegemonic forces to erase the traces of their predecessors. The East German regime is gone.


Is German Reunification Over?


In 2023, this historical makeover reaches a surprising epilogue. Renovation work on the square led to an unexpected and spectacular coup de théatre: the Marx-Engels Forum was refurbished to its former configuration. The founding fathers of scientific socialism are once again looking east. They have left their former intimacy in a green setting, and now stand at the center of an immense circular square, which is unfortunately all too empty.


Generally speaking, such a reversal of fortune allows us to approach questions of remembrance with optimism. Nothing is set in stone: everyone's positions can evolve. Over time, political passions fade, giving way to more nuanced, reasoned opinions. Paradigms change for better or worse. In any case, they adapt to contemporary issues. By correcting its approach, Germany and Berlin are acknowledging the East German heritage and integrating it into a common heritage. But there's no need to adhere to it: the forum's repositioning is an integral part of the national reconciliation process that is nearing completion. In this way, we achieve catharsis.


Nevertheless, the Marx-Engels Forum is a striking ideological symbol. As a historical and political object, does it belong in the public realm or in a museum? Be that as it may, the recent history of the Forum Marx-Engels underlines the absence of memorial neutrality. Caution is called for, as no one can confirm the present by reinterpreting the past.

Pro

  • Relevant staging

  • A history of German reunification

  • Easily accessible

Contra

  • A complete lack of information

  • Disappearance of shaded areas after renovation

  • An ideological space without safeguards

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