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Karl Marx is turning 200, and that's creating a stir in Germany, which was literally divided over his ideas

Karl Marx is turning 200, and that's creating a stir in Germany, which was literally divided over his ideas
Workers install a statue of German philosopher, economist, political theorist and sociologist Karl Marx on April 13, 2018, in Trier, Germany. The statue by Chinese artist Wu Weishan will be fully unveiled on May 5, Marx's 200th birthday. (Harald Tittel / AFP/Getty Images)

A specter is haunting Germany — the specter of Karl Marx.

A curious debate has erupted just as the hometown of communism's founding father is about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth in the western German town of Trier.

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Is it appropriate for a country split by the Cold War, which pitted communism against capitalism, to honor the 19th century critic of free markets? Is it tasteless to capitalize on Marx's name for the sake of tourist income? Is nostalgia for communist East Germany clouding people's memories? Or might Marx be a modern-day antidote to an era of unbridled capitalism?

Those are among the questions roiling Germans — and people across Europe — this week as his hometown prepares to pay tribute to Marx's memory by unveiling an 18-foot-high statue of its native son. The inauguration of the colossal statue will kick off a year featuring 600 events in the Trier area celebrating Marx, who was born on May 5, 1818. That the 2.3-ton bronze memorial of the bearded philosopher in a pensive pose and frock coat was a gift from the People's Republic of China has only added to the controversy.

"It just wouldn't have been possible to do this 30 years ago," Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe told reporters last month as workers bolted the still-concealed monument onto its pedestal on a square just around the corner from the house where Marx lived with his family until he was 17. "Karl Marx is one of Trier's greatest citizens and we shouldn't have to hide that."

Leibe did not have to mention the 150,000 Chinese tourists who make the pilgrimage to Trier each year and his city's hopes that even more will make the journey after the statue's wrapping is removed Saturday.

In a nod to the debate that has raged since the Trier city council agreed last year to accept the gift made in China, Leibe did acknowledge that it took time after German reunification for "a more distanced and differentiated" view of the town's most famous son to evolve. "The monument should inspire people to think about Marx and his literary works," Leibe said.

Marx's signature work, the book "Das Kapital," and "The Communist Manifesto," a pamphlet written with fellow German Friedrich Engels, shaped 20th century history. They provided the philosophical underpinnings of the Russian Revolution, which gave birth to the Soviet Union, and the Chinese Revolution, which created the People's Republic. Together, the events divided the world for decades into sharply defined blocs of East and West, capitalist and communist.

"A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism," "The Communist Manifesto" famously begins.

Marx's theories on economics and politics came to be known collectively as Marxism. His works had a major impact on his native country, which was divided into capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany for more than four decades after World War II.

"The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope," he wrote. And: "Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries unite!"

In his writings, Marx argued that the relentless drive for profits in the capitalist system would lead enterprises to continuously mechanize their workplaces and that it would, in turn, lead to more goods being produced even as workers' wages were being squeezed. He warned, also prophetically, that capitalism's tendency to concentrate high value on arbitrary products would lead to a "subservience to inhuman ... unnatural and imaginary appetites."

There were statues, streets, squares and schools named after Karl Marx throughout East Germany and even in parts of West Germany, but his name lost its luster as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. An East German city of 240,000 known as Karl-Marx-Stadt changed its name back to Chemnitz in 1990.

A pedestrian traffic light in Tier, Germany, features native son Karl Marx.
A pedestrian traffic light in Tier, Germany, features native son Karl Marx. (Patrik Stollarz / AFP/Getty Images)

But generations of East Germans raised on Marx's teachings began recalling his lessons in the wake of the global financial crisis starting in 2007.

"Karl Marx had a lot of good ideas and many of them are still valid," said Hartmut Meier, a 57-year-old mechanic who grew up on a steady diet of Marxism at a school in East Berlin. Although he does not miss life in communist East Germany, Meier said he harbors fond memories of Marx's ideas. "Unfortunately, most of them weren't implemented. I do like the idea that they're putting up a monument for him."

Ilona Tschitschke, 66, studied Marx and "Das Kapital" at university in East Germany and believed that he was wrong about a lot of things — in particular his views against private ownership. But she was always impressed with the way he was able to describe and define the capitalist system in society at such an early date in the 19th century.

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"I've got a lot of respect for what he achieved and he deserves recognition," Tschitschke, a retiree who worked in administration and marketing after reunification, said in an interview. "His goals were utopian and he got a lot wrong. But I think we're all more open now to acknowledge and admire what he did. He tried to make the world a better place."

That is far from a unanimous opinion. Hubertus Knabe, head of a memorial at a former prison for political prisoners in East Berlin, is among those who has criticized the Marx memorial in Trier.

"It is hard for many victims of the communist system to accept that a west German city is putting up a monument like this," he said.

Still, a recent poll by Ipsos in 28 countries found that Germans, whose nation is now the economic powerhouse of Europe, were far more skeptical about capitalism and free markets than people in other countries. The online survey of 20,793 adults around the world last month found that only 49% of German respondents agreed that free market competition brings out the best in people, compared with clear majorities of 70% and higher in a host of other countries — including not only the United States, but also China. Only in France were people more doubtful about free markets bringing out the best in people.

"There's a lot of criticism about the excesses of the free market economy in Germany," said Robert Grimm, 43, director of political research at Ipsos in Germany and an East German by birth.

"Social inequality and poverty is the biggest worry," he added. "People have lost faith in capitalism. It's created an economic environment that's not as transparent as it was and a dynamic where many people feel threatened."

In any event, Trier, a city of 115,000 in the Moselle River wine region whose politics have long been dominated by Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, is banking on capitalism fueled by Marx. Vendors are busy selling everything from zero-euro notes with Marx's hirsute face on them (for nearly $4) to rubber ducks wearing Marx-style beards. It has installed Marx-like green and red figures on traffic lights for pedestrian crossings and a local jeweler is selling silver Karl Marx rings bearing his visage.

Over in the eastern city of Chemnitz, the nostalgia for Marx in the place that long bore his name led one savings bank to issue credit cards with a picture of the 23-foot-high Marx bust that still stands in the city. A local brewery created a "Marx Staedter" (Marx city dweller) brew in March.

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will give a speech in Trier on Saturday to launch the Marx commemorations, ignoring criticism from Britain and elsewhere that he is being insensitive to people killed in the conflicts waged over Marxism and communism.

"Nobody can deny that Karl Marx is a figure who shaped history in one way or another," a spokeswoman for Juncker said. "Not speaking about him would come close to denying history."

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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