Karl Marx’s German home town celebrates his 200th birthday with a Chinese statue — and a struggle

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Nearly two centuries ago, the 17-year-old son of a vineyard owner left this tranquil riverside city on the edge of the Prussian empire to make his way in the world — and maybe shake it up a bit. 

On Saturday, after inspiring untold numbers of revolutions, repressive regimes and ponderous grad school seminars, Karl Marx came home. In bronze. By way of China. And, oh, he’s now 18 feet tall.

The unveiling of a two-ton, Chinese-funded sculpture to honor the German philosopher on the 200th anniversary of his birth brought scads of tourists to Trier, where his life began. 

While here, they took in Marx lectures, toured the Marx family home and bought vast quantities of marked-up Marx souvenirs. (The Marx rubber duckies — wild gray mane framing bright orange bill — were a particular hit.)

The capitalist exploitation of his birthday may not have thrilled the author of the Communist Manifesto. But the proponent of proletarian uprisings might have been cheered by another facet of the celebration: the struggle. Not of the class variety. But a bitter one, nonetheless.

The city is split over whether a democratic nation such as Germany should be erecting monuments that are paid for, designed and built by an authoritarian one such as China. The divide spilled into the streets Saturday with dueling demonstrations for and against the monolith, forming a noisy backdrop to the statue’s official dedication.

Marx rubber duckies — wild gray mane framing bright orange bill — are a particular hot seller in Trier, Germany. (Harald Tittel/AFP/Getty Images)

On one side, hundreds of flag-waving members of Germany’s fringe Communist Party cheered. On the other — separated by barricades and riot police — an eclectic group of Free Tibet, anti-Fascist and pro-human rights protesters chanted and blew whistles in a vain effort to drown out the speeches.

City officials say they see nothing wrong with the statue’s unusual path to Trier’s downtown. The statue, Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe insisted Saturday, is not about the “glorification” of Marx. Instead, he told the large crowd that had assembled under a cloudless blue sky, it’s meant to spark conversation — and strengthen international bonds.

“It’s a gesture of friendship,” he said.

But others in Germany — a nation divided for nearly a half-century due in no small part to its native son’s theories — say city officials are being naive about a project that neatly aligns with Chinese state propaganda.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a political agenda behind it,” said Christian Soffel, a Chinese studies professor at Trier University.

At shops in Trier, Germany, the hometown of Karl Marx, the “zero euro” souvenir bank notes that are adorned with his stern visage have sold out. (Harald Tittel/AFP/Getty Images)

How important Marx is to that agenda was underlined by the visit of two senior Chinese officials who spoke at Saturday’s ceremony. The officials — the country’s ambassador to Germany and the deputy chief of the Information Ministry, the government’s propaganda arm — each paid tribute to Marx, though not in terribly Marxian terms. 

The ambassador, Shi Mingde, said China had “modernized” Marx’s theories — a veiled reference to the country’s hearty embrace of much of modern capitalism — and boasted that China is responsible for 30 percent of global economic growth. 

“For that,” he said, “we can thank Karl Marx.”

At the unveiling’s critical moment, Chinese and German officials together pulled back a red drape to reveal a rendering of Marx in full stride — a book clutched beneath his left arm, his right gently pressed to his signature frock coat. 

China had already held its own lavish event to honor the bicentennial. On Friday, President Xi Jinping heralded Marx as “the greatest thinker of modern times” at a ceremony to mark his birthday at the Great Hall of the People. 

Xi, who recently pushed through constitutional changes that could allow him to stay in office indefinitely, has urged all Communist Party members to read Marx and adopt his theories as “a way of life.”

Xi’s German counterpart, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, showed markedly less affection with his own speech about Marx on Thursday. The philosopher was undeniably influential, Steinmeier said, and his ideas need to be discussed. But the country also cannot forget that his writings gave fuel to murderous regimes — and still do. 

“We shouldn’t fear Marx, but we don’t need to build any golden statues to him either,” Steinmeier said. 

Not so long ago, Germany was tearing down statues of Marx. An icon of communist East Germany, his likeness was scrubbed from many a town square after the country’s reunification under democracy and capitalism in 1990. 

And that is the way it should stay, said Dieter Dombrowski, who spent 20 months in an East German prison after getting caught trying to flee the country.

“Marx wrote the cookbook for communist dictatorships all over the world,” said Dombrowski, who now chairs an organization that advocates on behalf of those who were victims of such regimes.

He called the decision by Trier, in far western Germany, to allow China to build an enormous Marx statue “tragic and laughable all at once.” 

“In Trier, and in the West as a whole, no one read Marx. They don’t have a sense for the history,” he said. “It was all far away from them. But we know both his theories and how they were put into practice.”

Whether Marx would have approved of how his theories have been applied is the subject of fierce debate. Many defenders insist he should not be held responsible for the way his ideas were distorted for murderous ends decades after his death. And love him or hate him, there’s no denying that the problems he identified — particularly the tendency of capitalism to create conflict between classes — remain relevant two centuries later. 

“The gap between rich and poor is getting wider — not only here in Germany, but in the U.S. and in many other countries,” said Wolfgang Bergmann, a retired locksmith whose billowing white hair and beard make him a dead ringer for the long-dead philosopher. 

Bergmann was drawn to Trier for the statue unveiling because of his own political convictions. “I’ve been a communist since 1971,” he said proudly.

But Bergmann is relatively rare in Germany, particularly in Trier — a heavily Catholic and somewhat conservative city where residents have no taste for revolution.

The same was true in Marx’s day. 

Having been raised in a middle-class family in a stately Baroque home, he left to attend university at 17 and never moved back. Much of his life was spent in exile, where his radical writings advocating the violent overthrow of the capitalist system were better tolerated than they would have in his native land. He died in London and was buried there. 

Modern-dayTrier, with a population just north of 100,000, reflects little evidence that Marx’s ideas had much impact locally. Icons of capitalism — McDonald’s hamburgers, luxury watches, designer clothing brands — are on sale in the grand central square. Marx’s boyhood home, meanwhile, has become a “euro store,” where everything from Chinese-made flip-flops to sunglasses can be purchased with loose change. The Marx statue itself stares out at a hair salon.

The city has long been conflicted about the Marx legacy — a conflict well represented in the bookstore window across the street from the home where he was born which, unlike the home where he was raised, has been converted into a museum. 

Owner Regina Ebel has assembled in the window a motley collection of Marx books, Marx busts and even an antique that she claims, with a wink, could be Marx’s baby carriage. But she also has a cage stuffed with books and sealed with red tape — a protest Marx-inspired oppression. 

Her own views are similarly ambivalent. 

She would not mind a Marx statue in town. It’s just the size that bothers her. 

“A statue on a human scale is fine,” she said. “But this is propaganda.” 

If the tourists who have descended on Trier have any such concerns, it hasn’t shown. Many are Chinese, and Soffel, the professor, said he believes the city’s true goal in allowing the statue to be built is to up their number. 

“For a city like Trier, which has no real industry aside from wine and tourism, it’s quite attractive to draw more Chinese,” he said. 

Early indications suggest the strategy is working. At Trier Souvenir, around the corner from the spot where the statue was unveiled, the shop was doing a brisk business Saturday in all things Marx. 

The ducks were going fast at 6.90 euros apiece. The “zero euro” souvenir bank notes, adorned with Marx’s stern visage and selling for three euros, had sold out — but they could still be preordered. Marx mouse pads, coffee cups and refrigerator magnets were also in demand. 

In between ringing up sales, 24-year-old Sarah Klein said she had not given much thought to the statue debate or to what Marx would make of it all. 

But she was sure of one thing: “It’s going to be good for business.”

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