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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Ernst Thälmann Memorial: a relic of the GDR

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

The memorial to Ernst Thaelmann is at the gateway to gentrified Berlin.
Propaganda and/or patrimony?

The Ernst Thälmann Memorial is the former GDR's tribute to one of the leading members of the Communist Party of Germany. Neglected and controversial, his future remains more than uncertain.

A visit to the Monument to Ernst Thälmann is optional.

Some 25 years have passed since the events of June 1953, and East Germany is entering a new crisis, this time less brutal but persistent. The liberalisation of society in the 1960s and 1970s had been driven by a generation that had not experienced the great political struggles, or even the war. These children of the GDR challenged the regime's raison d'être with their new ambitions.

A return to the roots was necessary, and the worsening of the world geopolitical context was accompanied by attempts to revive the torch of socialism and perhaps also to remind people that East Germany had its own history and future, or at least to assert its right to exist in the face of the West German economic giant.

The idea of dedicating a monument to the memory of the former leader of the Communist Party of Germany, Ernst Thälmann, a Stalinist of the Third Period who was murdered in a concentration camp during the war, was quickly accepted. In the early 1980s, the Soviet artist Lev Kerbel, known for his monumental and heroic sculptures, was commissioned to build a monument to the proletarian martyr and to glorify the regime.

An unfortunately neglected legacy

Following a wide avenue, a gigantic square suddenly comes into view, in the recess of which the imposing building is enthroned. The monument represents the upper body of the martyr-hero, the gesture of the time, namely the raised fist, a symbolism supported by the staff of the banner that one imagines to be red. A 'red front' to mark the granite under the bronze statue.

Large, damaged lampposts overlook the monument, which appears to have little or no maintenance, and the configuration of the site easily suggests the pomp of the ceremonies of the past. The site is now partially abandoned and the monument is partly covered with graffiti and other tags. There are no informative inserts, no visible historical data.

A wider view reveals the huge prefabricated towers, all dating from the East German era. The whole seems unreal, a symbol of a two-stage reunification and a past that does not pass.

A Symbol of Ideology and Identity

A visit is a must for anyone who wants to experience the heroic and monumental atmosphere that characterised the architecture of the former People's Democracies. But it is also an indicator of how the East German heritage is being forgotten in the new Germany. Although it has been listed since 2014, the monument is deteriorating. A restoration project was planned for 2020, but the issue remains highly political.

It is a journey into a former and probably outdated time in a working-class neighbourhood on the edge of the beautiful gentrified urban ensembles. The site reminds us of an era that may have passed, but over the years it has become a symbol for some of those who still wish to remember and resist; to resist the new economic and social order of a Berlin that is less and less accessible to the working classes. Obviously, no visit would be necessary, partly because of the disuse of the place, partly because of the possible hostility of the old residents.

Reasons to go

  • One of the few remaining communist memorials in Berlin

  • A monument more impressive for its symbolism than for its aesthetics

Reasons to avoid

  • A complex lost in the city

  • Some hostility towards outsiders

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