In China Karl Marx is a hero – the man who invented Communism, with a little help from Friedrich Engels, is venerated almost to the same degree as Mao Zedong.
In Germany, the country of Marx’s birth, things are a little different. His writings are seen as undemocratic and in part responsible for the division of Germany after the Second World War.
Normally these two visions don’t clash – Marx is simply one of those happy touchstones that Chinese politicians like to reference in speeches on Sino-German relations.
Yet in the last month both sides have been forced to contend with each others’ views. The reason? A 6.3-metre statue of Marx that China wants to gift to his birthplace – the city of Trier in southwest Germany.
The statue shows Marx holding the lapel of his overcoat as he strides forth grasping a book in his other hand – possibly Das Kapital.
It was due to be delivered in time for the 200th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth next May.
Yet the idea proved so controversial that the Chinese embassy in Berlin had to put out a statement saying the statue was a “friendly present” which “shouldn’t be over-interpreted, politicised or ideologised”.
For some the problem was the statue’s size. German headlines abounded with phrases such as “Mega Marx” and “Marx XXL”. It would have been the second largest statue of Marx in the world. The largest is the 13-metre bust of the bearded philosopher in Chemnitz, in former East Germany.
When the Berlin Wall came down many of these giant reminders of Communism were removed. The same is true in China to a certain extent: many statues of Mao have been taken down over the years.
For others in Germany, the problem was celebrating Marx himself. Some said they would be happy with the statue if it was life-sized so they could “look it in the eye”.
“Setting up a statue of a man who played a major role in the development of Communism is a shame and not an honour for Trier,” Deutsche Welle quoted one local as saying.
Others had more of an issue with the benefactor of the gift: “Accepting a present means honouring the person who gave it. The Communist Party of China is not worthy of honour,” said Reiner Marz, a local politician.
The city’s mayor Wolfram Leibe is an advocate of the project, as he believes it will attract Chinese tourists, just as a similar Chinese statue of Engels did for the northwestern city of Wuppertal three years ago. The Marx museum in Trier already attracts about 150,000 Chinese tourists a year.
To help convince Trier residents, the city authorities erected a mock-up of Marx made of wood. Last week the council voted in favour of the project 42 to 11. However, it’s still undecided how big it will be.
“It still remains strange and anachronistic to allow another country to prescribe not only what this monument should look like, but determine that it should absolutely be installed in a public space – that’s not unproblematic,” Deutsche Welle quoted historian Winfried Speitkamp as saying.
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