Dr Julien Drouart
Marx-Engels Forum: A fascinating and timeless memorial
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
The Marx-Engels Forum is a memorial complex for the former GDR. Apart from the political message of the time, the abandonment of the positive memories of East Germany will be remembered. Therefore, a visit is not necessary.
A visit to the Marx-Engels Forum is optional.
The 1970s were a difficult period for East Germany. The economy was no longer viable and remained under Soviet perfusion. The regime was sclerotic, with a privileged bureaucracy out of touch with the social realities of the country. The new generation has not experienced the heroic times of the construction of socialism. It is at best disinterested, at worst protesting.
As a result, the convergence of social contradictions and economic hardships gave rise to an identity malaise 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. First of all, the Gendarmenmarkt was rehabilitated according to the codes of neoclassicism. The St. Nicholas district, the city' original town centre, which had been destroyed under Hitler's regime, was rebuilt. Symbolically, the heart and soul of Berlin was placed in the east. Haphazard ambitions gave rise to prefabricated houses with reinforced concrete half-timbering. At the same time, a monument to the memory of a communist leader murdered in a concentration camp was unveiled. Above all, in 1986, the construction of a huge Marx-Engels Forum to the glory of the ideological fathers of communism: the Germans Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was completed.
A return to the East German past
Located in a small park, near the 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 as such. From the centre, the statues of Marx and Engels emerge, one standing, the other seated. Far from the heroic codes in force, the representation is on a human scale to encourage a feeling of proximity. The design was very unpopular with the East German leaders of the time, when Gorbachev found it simply too 'German'.
Behind the figure of the two theorists, a straight marble relief symbolises the old world. It represents the decadent capitalism that oppresses the mankind. In front of it, other reliefs, this time in bronze, more voluptuous, all in movement, show the dignity and beauty of free humanity. The singing tomorrows thus pass through the theoretical contribution of the two companions on the 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 show the 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 strong.
The staging is quite remarkable for the canons of the time. It would perhaps be just as remarkable today if the memorial had not been the victim of 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 the statue of Lenin, those of Marx and Engels remained in place in the name of their German roots. However, they remained very strong 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 raze the Palace of the Republic, one of the high places of East German power. The disappearance of this imposing building opposite the memorial left Marx and Engels somewhat orphaned. In a second phase, the plans for the extension of the underground railway in 2010 made it possible to rearrange the forum. The manoeuvre reduced the forum to a small portion and enclosed it in a green space cut off from the outside world. Above all, 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 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 is customary in history for newly hegemonic forces to erase the traces of their predecessors. The East German regime lived on. The only question that needs to be raised is whether its memorials are historical objects. If they are, then 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 rereading of its past. The future of the site remains very uncertain.
Reasons to go
A rather relevant staging
A surprising sense of intimacy
A symbol of a past time
Reasons to avoid
A complete lack of information
A blatant lack of intellectual honesty
A place destined to disappear