Tracing the GDR Monuments of Berlin

Some European cities are filled with statues of emperors, kings and warriors – all recalling long-ago history. Berlin isn’t. It used to have all the usual statues once, but World War II destroyed most of them and what was left afterwards was neatly removed by the GDR leadership. Right now, Berlin is still paying tribute to the heroes of socialism and the working class – and I’ll tell you where to find those icons.

Denkmäler DDR - Central Berlin
Berlin’s lost historical statues in the exhibition ‘Berlin und seine Denkmäler’. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

Remember Lenin’s head? I wrote about it exactly a year ago, when it was excavated after being buried for almost 30 years. I went to pay it a visit last weekend, at its new resting place in the Spandau Citadel, a far corner of Berlin. The permanent exhibition ‘Berlin und seine Denkmäler’ doesn’t only have Lenin’s (4 ton!) granite head, but also more than a 100 other statues that once decorated the streets of Berlin – some dating all the way back to the 18th century.

Lenins Kopf - Central Berlin
Lenin’s head in the exhibition ‘Berlin und seine Denkmäler’. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans.

Karl Marx on His Very Own ‘Allee’

Apart from Lenin’s head, there weren’t a lot of GDR statues on display in the exhibition. The reason is simple: they’re still on the streets. The area around Strausberger Platz has a large share of them, starting with the – quite humble – bust of Karl Marx himself. It’s tucked away in a corner of Strausberger Platz and only noticed by tourists who just happen to look his way while admiring the impressive surrounding architecture. The bust is cast in bronze and it was revealed in 1983. Less than 10 years later, after the unification of Germany, Karl’s right to remain was already under discussion, but it was decided that he could stay.

The ‘Spain Fighter’

On entering Volkspark Friedrichshain coming from Strausberger Platz, you can’t miss another big GDR monument. It’s a warrior ready to strike, his sword and his fist up in the air. It depicts one of the communist German warriors who fought in the Spanish civil war (1936–1939). People from all over Europe, 60,000 altogether, travelled to Spain to help fight against the troops of Franco. In 1966–1968 this monument was created to honour these warriors, who fought for communism (or at least against fascism) even before the existence of the GDR and before WWII. And yes, the ‘Spanienkämpfer’ (Spain fighter) is still there and still ready for battle.

A Piece of Polish Resistance

More international communism can be found on the opposite side of the park, in the north-east. A man-sized Polish text and an over 10-metre-high pillar commemorate the joint battle of the communist Polish underground army and the German communist resistance against the Nazis. It was revealed in 1972 at one of the main entrances of the park and even though it’s still there in its full glory, the city did change the message slightly. In 1995 a plaque was added to the monument, stating in both German and Polish that the monument is also dedicated to the non-communist resistance and soldiers.

The Mythical Ernst Thälmann

Leave the park going north, just 1.5 km away there’s the next impressive GDR statue. Ernst Thälmann (1886–1944) was an almost mythical figure in the GDR: an early German communist who fought against Hitler, was imprisoned by the Nazis between 1933 and 1944 and eventually executed in the Buchenwald concentration camp. The official political youth organisation of the GDR was named after him, as was an uninhabited island close to Cuba (‘Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann’).

On what would have been his 100th birthday, in 1986, the Ernst-Thälmann-Park was created in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. Part of it was a 13-metre-high bronze statue of Thälmann. The park is surrounded by modern housing complexes, a school, a swimming pool and a planetarium, and therefore it was on the itinerary for most state visits. In 1997, it was decided that the park and the statue would keep their name – after all, Thälmann had shown a lot of bravery in trying to stop Hitler.

Goldfinger, Constructing the TV Tower

Just a few tram stops in the direction of Alexanderplatz brings you to another big guy dating back to the GDR. On Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, trees hiding him away from the drunken people exiting the Bavarian brewery across the street, is a 4-metre-high construction worker. His face expresses calmness and faith. He was there a year before the TV tower was finished in 1969 and he seems to be watching the construction work, proud to be allowed to work on an immense project like that. The statue is officially called ‘Bauarbeiter’ (construction worker), honouring all the strong men that helped to rebuild Berlin. His nickname is ‘Goldfinger’ however, thanks to all the people that have been touching his left hand.

The Founding Fathers

Follow Karl-Liebknecht-Straße for a little more than 10 minutes and you’re at the Marx-Engels-Forum, a small piece of surviving socialism on the edge of the Museuminsel. The area had been vacant for decades after the ruins of WWII were cleaned up. As it was right next to the Palast der Republik, the government building of the GDR, it was decided that a tribute to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would be fitting here.

Being the writers of The Communist Manifesto, and therefore considered two of the most important early socialists/communists, they received their own ‘forum’ in the heart of Berlin. In the heart of a green zone there’s a statue of the two founding fathers, on the back of it a wall frieze depicting scenes of socialism in Germany. After a lot of discussion in the 1990’s, it was decided that this statue could stay, too – at least for now.