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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Ernst Thälmann Memorial: A Relic of the GDR

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

The memorial to Ernst Thaelmann is at the gateway to gentrified Berlin.

The Ernst Thälmann Memorial is the former GDR's tribute to one of the leading members of the Communist Party of Germany. Neglected and contentious, its future is far from certain.

A Visit Is Optional

About 25 years have passed since the events of June 1953, and East Germany finds itself in a new crisis, less abrupt but enduring. The societal liberalisation of the 1960s and 1970s was spearheaded by a generation that had not experienced significant political struggles or even the war. These children of the GDR questioned the regime's raison d'être with their emerging ambitions.

A return to the roots was deemed necessary, and the escalation of global geopolitical tensions was met with attempts to rekindle the flame of socialism. This shift was also meant 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 powerhouse.

The proposal to dedicate a monument to the memory of the former leader of the Communist Party of Germany, Ernst Thälmann, a Third Period Stalinist who was executed in a concentration camp during the war, was promptly endorsed. In the early 1980s, the Soviet artist Lev Kerbel, renowned for his monumental and heroic sculptures, was commissioned to create a monument to the proletarian martyr and extol the regime.

An Unfortunate Neglected Legacy

Along a broad avenue, a colossal square abruptly unveils itself, set back within which the commanding edifice stands. The monument depicts the upper body of the martyr-hero, his fist raised in a gesture symbolic of the era. One can imagine a red banner supported by the staff, a 'red front' marking the granite beneath the bronze statue.

Tall, damaged lampposts oversee the monument, which appears to receive little to no maintenance, and the site's layout easily evokes the grandeur of past ceremonies. The site is now partially abandoned, the monument marred by graffiti and tags. There is a noticeable absence of informative placards or visible historical information.

A wider perspective reveals towering prefabricated structures, all remnants of the East German era. The entire scene feels surreal, a symbol of a two-tiered reunification and a past that refuses to fade.

A Symbol of Ideology and Identity

A visit is essential for anyone seeking to experience the heroic and monumental ambiance that characterised the architecture of the former People's Democracies. However, it also indicates how East German heritage is gradually being forgotten in the new Germany. Despite being listed since 2014, the monument is deteriorating. A restoration project was proposed for 2020, but the issue remains deeply political.

This is a journey into a bygone and likely outdated era in a working-class neighbourhood, bordering beautifully gentrified urban areas. The site is a reminder of a past era that may have ended, but over the years it has become a symbol for some who wish to remember and resist; to resist the new economic and social order of a Berlin increasingly inaccessible to the working classes. A visit may not be necessary, partly due to the site's disrepair, and partly due to potential hostility from long-time residents.

Reasons to Visit

  • One of the few remaining communist memorials in Berlin

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

Reasons to Skip

  • A complex lost in the city

  • Potential hostility towards outsiders


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