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Workers install a statue of German philosopher Karl Marx in Trier, Germany. The bronze statue is a present from China for the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. Photo: AFP

Karl Marx at 200: the giant Chinese statue that has become a figure of controversy in Germany’s Trier

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, opinions are divided in Trier over the gift from China and the legacy of its most famous son 

In the German city of Trier, a gargantuan gift from China is highlighting divisions over one of the area’s most famous sons.

Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx, is planning 600 events for the revolutionary philosopher’s bicentenary and the centrepiece of the celebrations is a 5.5 metre (18 feet) tall statue given by communist China.

“I never had a need for him,” retiree Helene Schmidt, 76, said, voicing her opposition to the statue, to be unveiled on Saturday, the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.

As Germany prepares to commemorate the bicentenary, Marx’s legacy remains divisive more than a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With scars from the cold war still fresh, people from capitalist former West Germany and the once communist East are of two minds about the 19th-century philosopher. 

The statue of Marx will be unveiled on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Some hail Marx as a visionary scholar who foretold the ills of the market economy, while others revile him for inspiring Stalinist regimes.

For many Germans, their feelings are shaped by where and when they grew up.

“My mother told me once that Karl Marx is a communist and that was that. And now he is standing before us,” said 92-year-old Anne-Lise, somewhat puzzled by the imposing statue, which is positioned near a set of recently installed special edition traffic lights featuring the philosopher.

As she was growing up in the West, she rarely heard mention of Marx, and it was only this year that she learned anything about the man, Anne-Lise said, declining to give her last name.

But university student Sandra Konrad, 22, has no doubts as to his lasting importance. “[Marx] delivered a great manifesto and no one can counter that,” she said. “He should not be buried away.” 

While older generations in west Germany grew up with little knowledge of key Marx works such as the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, that has changed since reunification.

Over the last decade in particular, unbridled capitalism and its discontents have fuelled renewed interest in Marx’s work on the oppression of the working class and inequality.

Trier is hosting a series of events to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. Photo: AFP

The theories, developed as the industrial revolution gathered pace in the 19th century, find resonance today as societies once again see social and political upheaval.

“There is a growing timeliness about Karl Marx – certainly the financial and economic crises played a role since 2008 when renowned contemporary economists praised him as a theorist,” said Rainer Auts, director of a company set up to oversee the exhibitions on Marx’s life, works and legacy.

But in the former East, where the work of Marx was once espoused in every school, some reject any praise for the man because of the damage his ideas wrought.

“Karl Marx developed the foundation upon which all subsequent communist dictatorships have built until today,” Dieter Dombrovski, president of the Union of the Victim Groups of Communist Tyranny, said.

“He wrote these works; sure, he did not implement them but he developed the thought and the communist dictatorships implemented everything that he wrote, word for word.”

Dombrovski, who was once jailed by the East German dictatorship, said more people were killed under communist regimes than under Adolf Hitler.

Amid those divisions, the giant statue gifted by China has become a lightning rod.

“In Germany, erecting a statue means conferring an honour to that individual. The city of Trier is therefore honouring Karl Marx and his works,” said Dombrovski, also accusing it of capitalising on the philosopher to draw more Chinese tourists.

German philosopher Karl Marx has inspired traffic light design in Trier. Photo: Reuters

Officials in Trier have rejected the accusations, arguing that Marx cannot be blamed for regimes that distorted his theories to their own ends.

“The [East German] regime treated Marx as its god, and his words were the true gospel. That discredited his ideas and philosophy. A new look has not been possible until after reunification,” Auts said, stressing that the commemorations aim neither to “glorify nor vilify” Marx.

For Trier mayor Wolfram Leibe, this year offers an opportunity to reassess the man and his work. He said the thinker should “take his place as one of the greatest sons of the city”.

“We now have 30 years of distance from reunification ... which gives us the possibility to look at Marx with a critical eye without prejudice,” he said.

Leibe also denied trying to attract Chinese tourists, many of whom come on a pilgrimage to visit Marx’s birthplace.

He said that only 1 per cent of Trier’s 5 million visitors a year were Chinese and the city did not have the capacity to accommodate more tourists even if it wanted to.

“Karl Marx formulated important ideas, and it is worthwhile to think about these ideas. If, after visiting [these exhibitions], someone then goes out to buy a book to re-examine different aspects of what Karl Marx offered, then I think we’d have achieved a lot,” Leibe said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Gift of Marx statue stirs German debate