Divisions resurface as Germany celebrates Marx at 200

Germany marks the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's birth on Saturday, but celebrations risk being marred by protests as the revolutionary philosopher remains a divisive figure almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Divisions resurface as Germany celebrates Marx at 200
A wrapped sculpture of Karl Marx in his birth city of Trier. Photo: Patrik Stollarz/AFP

Marx's birth city of Trier will lead commemorations of the man officials describe as a “great son of the city”, with 600 events planned around the 19th-century scholar hailed for foretelling the ills of capitalism.

The centrepiece of the festivities will be the unveiling of a 5.5-metre (18-foot) tall statue of the philosopher — a gift from communist China — with dignitaries including a Chinese delegation and the head of Germany's
Social Democratic Party to attend.

But it is also before the statue that the association representing victims of communism have called protests against the thinker they blame for inspiring Stalinist regimes.

“We want to protest loudly against the unveiling of the Marx statue and raise our voices against the glorification of Marxism,” said Dieter Dombrowski, president of the Union of the Victim Groups of Communist Tyranny.

For Dombrowski, Trier's decision to accept the gift from China is “disrespectful and inhuman” to those who suffered under communist regimes.

Far-right party AfD, which enjoys strong support in former East German states, has meanwhile separately called a silent march with the theme “Get Marx off the pedestal” through Trier's city centre.

With the far-right in the melee, counter-protesters are getting ready to march too against the nationalists.

'Neither glorify nor vilify'

Born May 5, 1818 in the western German city close to the border with Luxembourg, Marx developed his theories as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace.

His works such as the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital subsequently became compulsory course material in countries under communist regimes, with revolutionaries from Vladimir Lenin to Mao Zedong seizing on Marx's ideas.

China's President Xi Jinping on Friday said the Asian giant's communist party will forever remain “guardians and practitioners” of Marxism, while Vietnamese leader Tran Dai Quang also penned a gushing commentary marking Marx's birth.

Due to Marx's reputation as the Father of Communism, he was largely derided in the former capitalist West Germany during the Cold War.

But since reunification, and particularly over the past decade, unbridled capitalism and its discontents have fuelled renewed interest in Marx's work.

His theories on inequality and oppression of the working class find resonance today as societies once again see social and political upheaval.

Rainer Auts, director of a company set up to oversee the exhibitions on Marx's life, works and legacy, said that more than a quarter century after reunification, it was now time to reexamine the philosopher who left Germany deeply divided.

“We're not looking to glorify or vilify him. But we want to show him as a person in his time, as well as show where he may have gone wrong,” Auts told AFP.

But the gigantic statue gifted by Beijing has sparked accusations of a city seeking to capitalise on Chinese tourists or investments.

Rejecting the claims, Trier mayor Wolfram Leibe said it is simply “a gesture of friendship” from China.

“There isn't a single Chinese company in Trier. We have no economic relations with China and that means we made this decision autonomously. We are not susceptible to blackmail,” he told AFP.

Leibe acknowledged that the statue could become a vandalism target, but said: “that isn't going to give me sleepless nights. It can simply be cleaned up.”

'Marx should remain contentious'

The row over Marx and his legacy has also taken on a further political dimension over the AfD's planned silent march.

A group of counter-protestors want to make themselves heard against the far-right party, saying the AfD's controversial ideas against migrants constituted a “violation against humanity”.

At the same time, the counter-protesters are critical of China's present.

“Nationalism and an authoritarian dictatorship rule in China. Trier city would have been better off using its own funds to build the long-overdue Marx statue,” said the counter-protesters, which include several local left-leaning groups.

Wading into the debate on Thursday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Marx should remain as he has been in history — controversial.

“I think that us Germans, in 2018, should neither inflate Marx nor banish him from our history,” said Steinmeier.

“We should neither be afraid of Marx nor build gold statues of him. In short, Marx should remain contentious.” 

By Claudia Bathe with Hui Min Neo in Berlin


LG Buchheim: the multi-talented and irascible genius behind Das Boot

February 6th 2018 marks the 100th birthday of Lothar-Günther Buchheim, the author of Germany’s most famous war novel, Das Boot. But his talents stretched far further than just writing.

LG Buchheim: the multi-talented and irascible genius behind Das Boot
Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Photo: DPA

War correspondent. Writer. Artist. Art collector. Visionary. Tax dodger. Despot. These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Buchheim, one of the most colourful and enigmatic personalities of Germany’s 20th century cultural life.

Born in Weimar during the last year of the First World War, he was raised by a single mother and was already establishing himself as an artist in the 1930s. When war broke out though, he joined Joseph Goebbels's propaganda department and became a war correspondent.

In an assignment which was to immortalize him, he joined the crew of a U-Boot as they went on the hunt for British convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic. Initially he wrote a short story on his experiences.

After the war, Buchheim went back to his first love, art. He set up his own publishing house, writing on the expressionist movement that had flourished in Germany before the Nazi era. At the same time he brought up paintings by leading Expressionist artists including Kirchner and Nolde. As these artists had been condemned by the Nazis as degenerate, he was able to buy up the art for relatively little money.

Das Boot. Photo: DPA

By the end of the 1980s, when expressionism began to come back into vogue, his collection had become internationally famous and was estimated to have a value of over €100 million.

Buchheim was to become a household name as a writer, though. His 1973 book Das Boot fictionalized his wartime experiences on an U-Boot across 600 pages. It went on to be the best-selling work of fiction in Germany on the Second World War.

The subsequent film adaptation, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, was nominated for an Oscar and stands out as one of the most famous movies in German film history.

READ ALSO: German classic Das Boot to be reborn in new TV show

Anybody who wishes to see Buchheim’s exceptional art collection now can travel to the Museum der Phantasie on the western shore of Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, where an elegant modern museum juts out like a ship onto the water.

But the man with the stubbly beard and eye patch was as well known in Germany for his short temper and eccentric personality as for his artistic legacy.

According to the Süddeustche Zeitung, he would regularly deride people he didn’t like as “gutter rats”, while driving around his small Bavarian village in a Rolls Royce in order to make his neighbours jealous.

He reserved particular scorn for Peterson, who had turned down his script for the Das Boot movie. He accused the director of creating a cross between a “cheap, shallow American action flick” and a “contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II”.

The Buchheim Museum. Photo: DPA

For a man who had amassed a huge wealth through book sales and art, he was also incredibly stingy. When former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder paid him a visit, he was received like all guests at the camping table which served as Buchheim’s dinner table.

To mark the 100th birthday of the great man, his only son Yves has brought out a biography, detailing the highly dubious ways that his father came about his wealth.

Besides insinuating that his father was a Nazi who then switched sides out of expediency after the war, Yves claims that Buchheim hid most of his wealth in Swiss bank accounts and even forged works of art for money.

“My father never paid taxes like other people,” Yves Buchheim told the Donaukurier on Monday.

“He had a few real print blocks made by Otto Müller. I saw him make prints with it twice. That was a real money maker – the prints were then signed with an OM for Otto Müller,” Yves said.

According to Handelsblatt, the artist had furrowed away 14.1 million Swiss francs in Swiss bank accounts by the end of the 1980s.

Despite the controversies, Bucheim's legacy will live on through his art collection, which is well worth a visit. The museum is accessible from Munich via S-Bahn and bus.