One month ago, on Saturday the 9th of October, I went on a trip to Chemnitz, a medium-size city in the south of Sachsen, the third most populated after Leipzig and Dresden. The occasion to visit Chemnitz was given to me by the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of der Nischel, the monument-symbol of the city. For the occasion, the locals organized different activities, such as a light installation, a photography exhibition, a tour of Chemnitz , a discussion about the monument and its importance in the history and culture of the city, and a concert where different local bands and artists performed.
But what is this monument and why is it so famous? Der Nischel is a 7,1 meters statue shaped like the head of Karl Marx, German philosopher and author of “The Communist Manifesto” and “The Capital”. It was built in the 1971 by the soviet artist Lew Kerbel and after the head of Lenin in Ulan-Udė, Russia, is the second biggest portrait bust in the world. Behind the statue, there is a wall designed by a group of artist, on which the following words are engraved: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” which is the motto of “The Communist Manifesto”. The sentence is written in four languages: German, English, French, and Russian.
So, why there is a head of Karl Marx in Chemnitz? He was not born in Chemnitz (his hometown was Trier, in the Land of Rheinland-Pfalz), nor he studied or worked there during his life. The reason Chemnitz has a statue of Marx is due to the fact that the city, as all Saxony, was part of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) whose system was inspired by the principles of socialism. In 1953 it was named Karl-Marx-Stadt (“Karl-Marx-City”), and only after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the DDR, in 1990 the city went back to its previous name.
It is curious that the Soviet artist Lew Kerbel, personally chosen by the leader Walter Ulbricht of SED (Sozialistische Einheitpartei Deutschlands), has modelled almost twenty variants of the statue before deciding which one was going to become the symbol of the city.
How do the inhabitants of Chemnitz feel about der Nischel today? The opinions about the monument are different. For some people it celebrates a dictatorship, for others Marx represents a fair socio-economic system, a model to which all societies should aspire because of its principles of equality. Somebody else has conflicting feeling. In an interview, Frédéric Bußmann, the Director of the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz (an art museum), says that every time he sees this impressive head of Marx he feels torn. On the one hand, this statue reminds him to ages of dictatorship and oppression. On the other hand, he is very happy that the city of Chemnitz decided not to tear off the Marx head, because the monument has a certain fascination.
In fact, given the results of the Bundestagswahl of the 27th of September 2021 in Saxony, where Alternative für Deutschland (an extreme-right party, close to neo-Nazism) got about the 25% of the votes (more than all the other parties), it surprises me as well that the statue of Marx has not been vandalized.
However, it has to be underlined that Marx himself never wanted a personality cult. In fact, he never cared about popularity, as he wrote in a letter: “During the time of the International I never allowed the numerous manoeuvres of recognition with which I was molested to penetrate into the realm of publicity."
It was hilarious for me to see that for the Nischel-Jubiläum the statue was surrounded by numerous stands where one could buy souvenirs with Marx’s head: bags, t-shirts, hats, knick-knack, magnets…Komisch, as a German would say, that who criticised capitalism ended up being commodified.