25 years after Berlin Wall fell, Lenin’s image still divides

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

In the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, historian Ralf Wendt has watched much of his former life vanish.

The museum he curated that tells Schwerin’s 1,000-year history was a national treasure in communist East Germany. But once East Germany merged with West Germany, it was just an unprofitable remnant and its once-admired exhibits were hauled off to storage.

Change came elsewhere too. The public art that this East German provincial capital had proudly display during 40 years of socialism was deemed uninteresting to a capitalist world. Piece by piece, it was removed and hidden away. In one case, a school janitor decided on his own to take down and bury a statue of Karl Marx, the German father of socialism.

Now Wendt is watching with chagrin as the one of the last markers of the East German era comes under attack: a towering memorial to the founder of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin, that stands on a small residential square. It may be the last of its kind in Western Europe. A growing movement wants it torn down.

“In this modern world, we are told Lenin plays no role,” he said. “But we cannot totally ignore our history. The monument is a document. It says who he was, and that says something about who we were _ and are. I don’t understand the need to tear it down or cover it.”

But such a need very clearly has existed for decades, and it goes far beyond the boundaries of this historic and quaint lakeside resort city. It was seen throughout eastern Europe as the Soviet empire collapsed. It’s most obvious current expression is in Ukraine, where statues of Lenin have been falling at an unprecedented clip as many in that country reject their nation’s historic alignment with Russia.

Since Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country in February, at least 158 Lenin statues have been toppled in Ukraine, according to the count of one website that published photos of each of the destroyed artworks. Other tributes to Lenin have also been erased: A boulevard was renamed from Lenin to Lennon, to commemorate the murdered member of the Beatles.

Ukraine is hardly unique in its antipathy to the founder of the Soviet Union.

Since the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Lenin statues have been dragged or beaten down in former Soviet states and satellites from Armenia to Romania.

In Berlin, a famous Lenin in granite was hauled away and buried. The burial site is unmarked _ to discourage devotees from creating a memorial at the site, in much the same way German authorities refused for decades to mark the spot where Adolf Hitler killed himself. His death spot, now an apartment complex parking lot, merits a multilingual plaque today.

All of which lends an air of significance to the discussion in what used to be near the northwestern tip of East Germany of what to do with Schwerin’s Lenin.

The debate, which began years ago, has included everything from splashing paint on the statue to letter-to-the-editor battles in the local newspaper. On Tuesday, former East German resident Alexander Bauersfeld organized a protest and covered Lenin’s head with a bed sheet to look somewhat like a hangman’s hood.

Bauersfeld’s reasons for the protest: the continued existence of the statue causes him serious pain. The East German government arrested and imprisoned him as a political dissident. He says honoring the man at the heart of the Soviet empire _ he describes Lenin as “one the worst tyrants of the 20th century” _ is simply wrong. In June 1953, when Soviet tanks crushed a popular uprising in East Germany, many carried images of Lenin, he points out.

“Our campaign is long overdue,” he said. “The Lenin statue has to go.”

The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good time to complete purging the symbols of an oppressive state from Germany, he said. The symbolism went further: The protest was on June 17, which in 1953 was the day Soviet tanks crushed the workers’ rebellion.

This week, most of the protesters, however, were elderly pro-Leninists, who turned out to try to persuade politicians not to topple this statue. But that doesn’t mean Bauersfeld is alone in his beliefs. Schwerin native and area resident Reinhard Doege also considers himself a victim of his old nation. He’s been seeking the file that the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, compiled on him as a way of dealing with the anniversary on a personal level. On a national level, he thinks it’s time to say “Goodbye, Lenin.”

“Lenin was a criminal,” Doege said. “He committed crimes against humanity. His statue has got to go.”

Schwerin Mayor Angelika Gramkow has taken considerable heat for fighting to keep the statue standing. A member of the socialist left, she thinks it’s important to remember the past.

She notes that her city is home to one of the last remaining Lenin statues in Western Europe, and one of the few left in the former Soviet satellites.

“It was a disaster to remove almost all statues and rename most streets that reminded us of our East German past after the fall of the wall,” she said. “We Germans tend to remove signs of the past at the end of every historic period. We think our responsibility is done when we remove the symbols. We forget that in their absence, public discussion of the past is no longer possible.”

Others also support keeping the statue standing, though much of it seems halfhearted.

Jutta Gerkan, a Green Party state legislator from the area, said that while she understood that some might find the statue offensive and painful, it could be worse: “It is Lenin, not Stalin,” she said.

Heino Schuett, a Christian Democrat state legislator who’s also from the region, went a step deeper, and darker, into German history.

“We take our children to monuments of the Nazi past so that they can understand the mistakes we’ve made before,” he said. “This statue reminds me of that. We should keep it to learn from it.”

The statue itself is said to be unique. It shows Lenin with his hands in his overcoat pockets, which some suggest indicates a Lenin unsure of himself, while others have suggested it might mean he has blood on his hands or is simply cold.

Supporters of the statue point out that it hardly whitewashes history. Eight years ago, the city embedded a plaque on the base noting, “Countless people died at his command. . . . Lenin almost completely destroyed democratic parties and the church in Russia. His theory formed the intellectual base for communist regimes all over the world. Lenin’s dictatorship paved the way for the communist terror of the 20th century.”

“If you see Schwerin today, there’s not a lot left to remind us of East Germany,” said Wendt, the historian. “The freedom to express a dissident view today is little different than it was then. And it is wise to remember that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history do repeat them.”

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