The Guardian

The Guardian July 17, 2002


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

From the future to the past

The German Government may be tarting up Soviet war memorials as mentioned 
in last week's Culture & Life, but it's a different story when it comes to 
memorials to German Communists, socialists and anti-fascists.

While in Berlin, I went to see the memorial to Ernst Thaelmann, the 
courageous, determined leader of Germany's pre-war Communists. Arrested by 
the Nazis in 1934, Thaelmann was kept in a Gestapo prison until 1944.

With their regime clearly doomed, the Nazis took Thaelmann secretly one 
night to Buchenwald concentration camp and murdered him, burning his body 
that same night so his grave could not become a place of pilgrimage.

The GDR Government's decision to erect a monument to this great German 
fighter for the working class, was a very popular, even overdue decision. 
Not so popular was the government's decision to give the task of creating 
the memorial to a Soviet sculptor.

The memorial sculpture that was eventually unveiled was in fact very 
Russian in appearance and feel, looking, as one Berliner said, more like a 
memorial to Yuri Gagarin than Ernst Thaelmann.

Berliners in particular felt that this very German subject would have 
benefited from the vision and feeling for his subject of an anti-fascist 
German artist.

Whatever its artistic merit, however, its subject should command respect 
for the memorial. But anti-fascism is not held in high regard in today's 
capitalist Germany, and the statue of a Communist leader is regarded as a 
proper target for attack by vandals.

The Thaelmann memorial on the day I visited it was splattered with white 
paint that had apparently been thrown at the statue in paper bags designed 
to burst on impact. Its base was covered in huge graffiti, brainless and 
ugly.

But worse was to be revealed at the charming, verdant little park 
containing the memorial to the pioneers of socialism in Germany. Here are 
graves and memorials to German Communists and socialists from late 19th 
century activists for women's rights to early post-war leaders of the GDR.

Central to the ensemble, however, is the memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and 
Karl Liebknecht, the German Communist leaders who were murdered ("with 
atrocious brutality" as the Dictionary of Modern History puts it) by 
extreme right-wing military officers in 1919.

The memorial is in the form of a series of graves grouped around a standing 
stone tablet. Each of the grave sites in the central group is identified 
with a heavy bronze plaque, bolted to the ground.

On the day I went, there were fresh red carnations on the graves of Rosa 
Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck (the GDR's first President, if 
memory serves me right).

But Liebknecht's bronze plaque was missing  stolen by vandals  along 
with another from one of the other graves.

This kind of deliberate sabotage is apparently frequent, a constant drain 
on the time and scant resources of the city's socialists.

But there are other types of incidents in Germany today, too. One comrade 
told me about a recent occurrence in her home village of Rastow, in the 
north of what used to be the GDR, near the city of Schwerin.

Rastow is a very old village and earlier this year celebrated its 700th or 
800th anniversary (I forget which). My informant went home for the 
celebrations, which included an historical parade through the village's 
main street.

The parade began in medieval times and progressed through a succession of 
costume changes up to modern times. The big set piece of the parade, 
however, was reserved for the period after WW2, the period of the GDR.

That was when the eastern part of Germany finally began to develop, in 
industry, science, the arts but above all in modern, industrialised 
agriculture. The great co-operating farms, as they were called in the GDR, 
were so successful that most of them are still operating today, refusing to 
roll over and give up in the face of government preference for western 
Germany's agricultural interests.

In Rastow, the parade representing the post war years, the GDR years, burst 
forth with huge harvesters, trucks, grain headers, tractors, rotary 
ploughs, etc. Apparently the crowd watching did not burst into cheers or 
anything, but afterwards there was a lot of discussion, and meaningful 
comments about "then" and "now".

Back in 1919, the great US newspaperman Lincoln Steffens gave his eight-
word report on revolutionary Russia: "I have seen the future  and it 
works!"

Today, the people of eastern Germany, like the people of the other former 
socialist countries of eastern Europe, have had the unique experience of 
seeing the future like Steffens did, and then ten years of seeing the 
system that had preceded it (seeing the past  again).

They are beginning to cut their way through the disinformation of 
imperialism's spin doctors and to rely instead on their own experience. 
Life, as they say, is a great teacher.

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