German City Accepts Karl Marx Statue From China, But Not Everyone's Happy | WGLT

German City Accepts Karl Marx Statue From China, But Not Everyone's Happy

Mar 21, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 10:47 am

The German city of Trier has never been particularly fond of its most famous son, Karl Marx, who helped turn communism into an ideology that changed the course of history.

Conservative and Catholic, the picturesque city on the French border took an ambivalent view of the radical revolutionary, born into a Jewish family in 1818.

But now, as Trier prepares for the bicentennial of Marx's birth, the city plans to put up a monument to the bushy-bearded thinker. Last week, Trier's city council overwhelmingly voted to accept a 20-foot bronze statue of Marx as a gift from China — which, at least in name, is still a communist country.

Marx, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, cannot be held responsible for the distortion of his ideas after his death in 1883, says Trier's mayor, Wolfram Leibe.

Wolfram Leibe, Trier's mayor, supports the Karl Marx statue as a way of furthering international understanding.
Lucian Kim / NPR

"Karl Marx acted in the historical context of the 19th century," Leibe said. "He didn't participate in any atrocities or commit any crimes. He was a philosopher."

Reiner Marz, one of a handful of dissenting voices in the city council, says there's nothing wrong with honoring Karl Marx with a statue. The problem, he says, is the Chinese connection.

"The Chinese regime tramples on human rights," he said. "I don't want to receive any presents from that kind of regime."

What's telling is that not a single city council member from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union voted against the Marx monument. Ideological clashes are a thing of the past, and Merkel has moved her conservative party considerably to the left.

China wields enormous clout in Europe. The country is the largest single foreign investor in Germany, according to GTAI, the German government's economic development agency.

China is also one of the biggest sources of tourists for Trier.

At Karl Marx's birthplace — a stately, three-story townhouse with creaky wooden floors — a quarter of all visitors come from communist China.

More than 40,000 tourists flock to Karl Marx's birth house every year, a quarter of them from China.
Lucian Kim / NPR

The city receives up to 150,000 Chinese tourists a year — more than Trier's entire population — and Marx's fame in China as a founding father of communism is a big part of the draw.

Trier also has become younger and more liberal as its university has grown, says Michael Schmitz, editor of the local section of the Trierischer Volksfreund newspaper.

"Many who talk about Karl Marx today didn't experience the Cold War themselves and know the Berlin Wall only from history books," he says.

Small Karl Marx sculptures can easily be found in Trier shops.
Lucian Kim / NPR

Schmitz says that what bothers most people about the statue is its size and proposed location near the town's main attraction, a 2nd century Roman gate called the Porta Nigra.

At the wine stand on Trier's main square, residents open up over glasses of local Riesling.

Thorsten Domeier, who moved to Trier from the former East Germany almost 20 years ago, says he is against the statue. Domeier laughs, saying he just can't get away from Marx — in Soviet times, he grew up near a town called Karl Marx City.

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After communism collapsed in Europe and Germany was reunited, many people in the former West Germany saw themselves as being on the right side of history. Many people in the former East Germany wanted to forget their communist past. Now more than 25 years later, a debate over a statue of one of communism's founding fathers, Karl Marx, is dividing a city in western Germany. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Trier.


LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: There's a saying that in Trier, it's either raining, or the church bells are ringing. Locals were probably saying the same thing 200 years ago when Karl Marx, author of "The Communist Manifesto," was born in this picturesque town near the French border. Conservative and Catholic, Trier has long had an ambivalent view of its most famous son, a radical revolutionary born into a Jewish family. But earlier this month, the city overwhelmingly voted to put up a 20-foot statue of Marx for the bicentennial of his birth next year.

WOLFRAM LEIBE: (Speaking German).

KIM: That's Trier's mayor, Wolfram Leibe. He says Karl Marx can't be held responsible for the perversion of his ideas after his death. Leibe says Marx didn't commit any crimes or atrocities. He was a philosopher.

LEIBE: (Speaking German).

KIM: Reiner Marz, one of a handful of councilmembers who voted against the statue, says he has nothing against a Karl Marx monument per se. His problem is that it's a present from China.

REINER MARZ: (Speaking German).

KIM: "The Chinese government tramples on human rights," Marz says. "I don't want to receive any presents from such a regime." It's no coincidence the statue is coming from China. Not only is the country officially still communist. It's also the largest foreign investor in Germany and one of the biggest sources of tourists for Trier.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

KIM: A tour guide leads me around Karl Marx's birthplace, a stately three-story townhouse with creaky wooden floors. The museum says a quarter of its visitors are from China. The town reckons it gets up to 150,000 Chinese tourists each year, a number greater than Trier's entire population. That's one reason why so few politicians in this conservative town voted against the Karl Marx monument. Another reason, says Michael Schmitz of Trier's newspaper, is the passage of time.

MICHAEL SCHMITZ: (Speaking German).

KIM: He says a lot of people didn't experience the Cold War personally and only read about communism in history books.


KIM: Out on Trier's main square, the wine stand is opened after the winter. Over a glass of local Riesling, people open up, like Thorsten Domeier, who moved to Trier from the former East Germany almost 20 years ago. He says he's against the statue.

THORSTEN DOMEIER: (Speaking German).

KIM: Domeier says that for him, communism didn't have any positive aspects. He grew up not too far from an East German town once named after Karl Marx, and, Domeier laughs, it seems he just can't get away from him.

DOMEIER: (Laughter, speaking German).

KIM: "No, no, definitely not." Lucian Kim, NPR News, Trier. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.