The Hidden Message of a Communist Monument

Ernst Thälmann Monument - PHOTO: Reiss Madden. 

Nostalgia,by far one of the more consistent human emotions (although not always necessarily consistent with truth…)

Whichever milestone you might have reached in your life, you can rely on nostalgia to creep up on you at some point. And perhaps most acutely at times of change, which is why my final day of packing for Berlin consisted of approximately 7% packing and 93% re-discovering old photographs. Between the baby and the birthday snaps, plus a sassy Halloween shot of me dressed as a French maid (obviously), I also found my old high school photographs. What astounded me most as I scanned the rows and rows of faces was not the abundance of shit mid-noughties hairstyles on display, nor the plethora of sub-par sporting brands (given the recent resurgence of Ellesse and FILA, it seems only fair that Umbro gets a well overdue re-run sometime soon. Just saying…)


What astounded me most was that I could still name every face on that photograph. What was more, I could also still accurately categorise these faces into their respective high school sub-cultures. There were the footballers, the chavs, the moshers, the skaters, the geeks, the scruffs, plus that one guy who always wore a flame-shirt and thus earned a category all of his own (every school had one.) Oh, how we learn from such a young age to define and pigeonhole our fellow human beings. Still, my eyes were drawn to ‘The Russian’…

How does anybody gain such an ominous moniker? In-part due to his somewhat vague resemblance with Ivan Drago, the antagonist from Rocky IV; in-part due to the fact that he was also (reputedly) hard as fuck.

Besides eating spiders, one of The Russians favourite pranks was to buy a Mars Bar or some other predominantly chocolate-based snack from the canteen, chew it into a thick, gooey paste and then spit it at one of his “friends”. Classic. The Russian didn’t spit often, but the silent threat of it was enough to keep you on full alert.

We always laughed. I always laughed. Partly through the notion that humour does often come at somebody else’s expense; partly through the sense of relief that it wasn’t me (which has somehow come to define the collective-mindset of 21st century humanity). I wasn’t hard as fuck. I was just good at keeping my mouth closed. Looking at the face of ‘The Russian’ through the eyes of a 25 year old, I couldn’t help but laugh again. Like me, he was just another 15-year-old boy. The menacing presence I remembered was nothing but a caricature.

 I experienced a similar feeling the first time I took the M4 Straßenbahn along Greifswalderstraße. Not far from the intersection on Danzigerstraße sits a huge Communist monument - the very embodiment of kitsch, I couldn’t help but laugh. How could anybody have ever taken this seriously? Curtained by two high-rise tower blocks, it dominates the surrounding area yet paradoxically remains largely ignored. And there lies this monument’s true worth.

You’d be forgiven for presuming it to be homage to Lenin; but it’s actually a monument to Ernst Thälmann, once leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, he was eventually executed on the order of Adolf Hitler himself after 11 years in solitary confinement. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the DDR commissioned Soviet sculptor Lev Kerbel to construct a monument in Thälmann’s honour. A bold exhibition of Soviet power, this fifty-ton monstrosity was finally unveiled in 1986 on what would have been Thälmann’s 100th birthday. And so Herr Thälmann sat cast in bronze, characterized as a shining example of Communist ideals. It seems a cruel irony that a man who struggled against one oppressive regime came to be idolized by another - whether or not Thälmann would have actually approved of Communism, as it eventually evolved, will of course remain unanswered. But like many other statues and monuments constructed during the reign of the Soviet Union, the ideology and moral standing of the subjects that they were idolizing were either ignored or tailored to meet their own nefarious agenda. Take ‘Marx-Engels Forum’, for example… two brilliant minds adopted as symbols of a warped interpretation of their own philosophy.

Along with the dismantling of the Soviet Union came calls for the dismantling of the monument itself. To many living in former East Berlin, it served as nothing but a grim reminder of Soviet oppression. However, these calls were ignored. And so it sat patiently, like a forgotten piece of art locked in the gallery vaults, craving recognition.

Art is a necessary expression of human existence, even in Communism. Once you can express an idea or an ideology through the medium of art, you permeate far deeper into the human psyche. Because it’s art, it becomes easier to accept and thus inexorably, easier to accept the regime. But perhaps Kerbel never anticipated that the true message of his work might only reveal itself once his own agenda had come to pass. We are left only with the shell of his intention and now its true worth, devoid of any agenda, can finally be realised.

So what is the message?

All power will dissolve in time. No regime or rule has survived throughout the entire epoch of human existence. The only thing that has sustained is simple human decency and the countless acts of goodwill that for the most part will remain nameless. Because our true nature cannot simply be defined under the guise of some finite ideology. Whether we fully realise it yet or not, we are above that.

But what is the answer?

To put it simply, I’ll quote the German writer, Günter Grass:

The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.

By respecting power, we legitimize it. By staying silent, we enable it. Whether it be Communism or Fascism, the malevolent hypocrisy of US foreign policy, the latent homophobia of Putin’s Russia, the reckless bombing of Syria, the mistreatment of refugees or the elitist policies of a potential pig-fucker like Cameron, we have only one duty.

Perhaps humanity can learn to look at its ideologies the way I can now look at an old school photograph.

We are no longer in our infancy.

By Reiss Madden

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