On your Marx, ready, go … to Trier!

On your Marx, ready, go … to Trier!

Martin Kämpchen

Visiting my German home-town Boppard this summer provided a special event this year – meeting up with history. From Boppard to Trier, the birth-place of Karl Marx, it is just two hours by train. You travel to Koblenz where the river Moselle joins the river Rhine, and change into a train moving upstream along the snaking course of the Moselle. It is one of the prettiest trips Germany can offer chugging leisurely through hilly vineyards on both sides of the river, stopping at picturesque small towns whose population lives from producing wine and from tourism. After Koblenz, Trier is the next city to the West and the last. Further westward we touch France and Luxembourg. Trier is tugged into a corner of Germany, removed from the big thoroughfares connecting the major cities and the industrial or tourism centres.

For us as children and students, Trier was not the birthplace of Karl Marx although, of course, his name was known and at University we read his Manifesto. Rather; Trier was known to us as the “oldest city of Germany” which had its roots deep in the Roman Empire. We heard about its two thousand year old history. Its emblematic landmark has always been the Porta Nigra, the monumental “Black Gate” of Roman origin and which already school boys from all over the country learn to identify. But the imperial and ecclesiastical prominence of Trier is now buried in history.

As school children in Boppard we knew that we were part of the Catholic diocese of Trier, and when a bishop came on a visitation he arrived from Trier. The fact that Trier was the birthplace of Karl Marx dawned on us much later. We thought it a bit farcical when we heard about some Chinese tourists or even some rare government officials from the German Democratic Republic, the erstwhile East-Germany, coming over to Trier like pilgrims to goggle at the house where Marx was born. After all, his economic philosophy had become government ideology in East Germany, in the then Soviet Union, in China, yet never in West Germany where he was born. In fact, what fateful irony that since decades the Communist party is banned in Germany! We remember the adage that a prophet is never popular in his own country.

The city of Trier, however, has risen to the occasion of Marx’ 200th birth anniversary. Two major exhibitions in the two major local museums portray Karl Marx strictly as a historical figure whose importance is imbedded in the social and political development of Germany and of Europe. Both, the Rheinische Landesmuseum and the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift next to the Porta Nigra, do not focus on Marxism, but on the person and the professional career of Karl Marx. Not a word of the Marxist systems that arose with revolutionary brutality and then floundered. Not a word about Marxist dictatorships and their horrible failings, neither about the attempts of marrying Marxism with democracy.

In Trier, we experience Marx’ life and achievements as part of the German struggle for independence from the regional sovereigns, in favour of a liberal social system, and above all, to gain justice for the poor and exploited workers and craftsmen. Dozens of historical paintings collected from all over Europe demonstrate the poverty of the masses and the havoc the budding industrialization and the rise of technology created among the masses. Marx left his academic career early and thereafter worked as a journalist commenting acidly on the revolutionary movements that sprang up in various German cities and in Paris and then in London. We see Karl Marx as a mentor of many of these labour movements helping them to define their political aims and social and financial demands. His was not the existence of an armchair revolutionary. He struggled with censorship, with political enmity, poverty and illness; he had to flee from place to place with his family, leaving Germany for Paris where liberal ideas were more advanced, and then to London where he spent long years in exile.

The exhibitions show us that Karl Marx was not a solitary figure, instead he was one of numerous important German and pan-European personalities who propelled a movement towards what, in fact, may be said to be one achievement in our post-war era in Europe: equality and justice for all citizens. Would Karl Marx be content with what we can witness in Germany and its neighbouring countries now? True, the societal progression that he projected and foretold was erroneous in many of its aspects. But the aim of a just society for which Marx had lived and suffered, giving every individual the opportunity to develop his/her potential, – has that, to a good extent, not been realized today? What about global society?

Would Marx have approved of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, in 2015, allowed over ten lakh refugees from Asia and Africa flow into the country? German society is deeply divided on this issue. Would it have made Marx proud that the poor and unjustly treated masses from far-away countries flood German streets in search of food and justice – and receive it by a legal system that favours their demands?

These exhibitions point to the fact that, bypassing the revolutionary process which Marx had projected and wanted to foist on history, his philosophy has become ‘domesticated’. In their attitude of historical finality they seem to prove that Marx the provocateur and instigator no longer exists. Society has discovered sober ways of satisfying, to some extent, the demands of the proletariat – labour unions, pension schemes, poverty alleviation schemes, insurances, loans.

And, as one German commentator interestingly remarked, society has re-discovered one method of satisfying ‘the masses’ which is indeed ancient: entertainment. The Roman emperors kept the restive populace under their thumb with panem et circenses – bread and games. The elaborate festival culture of our era in both Europe and on the Indian subcontinent, the religious and secular celebrations, in fact including the museums and exhibitions (which memorialize Karl Marx now) and cultural shows which are so identity-building for us today, are part of the ‘distractions’ from the Marxian revolutionary process.

The (ir)relevance of Karl Marx in Germany was brought into sharp focus when it became public that the Chinese government had donated a larger-than-life statue of Karl Marx to the city of Trier. It was installed and unveiled with much fanfare on 5 May. The dignified, well-crafted bronze statue by the sculptor Wu Weishan got its own, yet slightly secluded, space close to the Porta Nigra. Controversy abounded. Can we accept, some asked angrily, a gift by a government that has brought untold misery to its people in the name of Marx? Then why, retorted others, do we engage in profitable trade and in cultural exchange with China? The controversy stands for the ironies that surround Marx.

Karl Marx Statue in Trier, inaugurated on 5 May 2018. LINK:


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