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Let’s be clear from the start: Karl Marx never came here. Nevertheless, Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt on 10 May 1953 on the instructions of the GDR’s single ruling party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party). The city had been identified with industry and work for decades, so for many political decision-makers it was entirely logical to rename it. But there were other voices too, that spoke out against the name change – the people themselves were never consulted.

The old town with the new name, whose centre had been largely destroyed towards the end of the Second World War, was intended to become a model Socialist city. To give this goal enduring expressive power, it was decided to erect a monument to underscore the political stance of the ruling powers of the time. Soviet sculptor Professor Lew Jefimowitsch Kerbel was commissioned.

In 1965, an extensive search began for a suitable site for the monument. Consideration needed to be given to the reconstruction of the city centre and the creation of an area known as the Zentrale Platz (Central Square) for parades and demonstrations. The idea of an 11 m, full-body sculpture was swiftly rejected due to its size and impact.

Kerbel’s next design was even more surprising, depicting only Marx’s head. His response to his critics was to argue that, “Karl Marx doesn’t need legs or hands; his head says it all.”

Standing over 7.1 metres tall, weighing 40 tonnes and consisting of 95 individual parts, the bronze bust sits on a 4.5 m granite plinth and is one of the largest busts in the world. The individual parts were cast at the Monument Skulptura art foundry in Leningrad, and the granite comes from the Korninsky quarry in Ukraine. The monument was  inaugurated on 9 October 1971.

This architectural ensemble also includes a large slab of text on the wall of the building behind it. It was designed by Chemnitz-born artist Volker Beier (sculptor) and Heinz Schumann (font designer), and displays a quote from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite!” in four languages – German, English, French and Russian.

To this day, the monument – always rather morose and serious – stands witness to a variety of social developments. In the GDR era, the monument was the focus of the annual 1 May demonstrations, and was also the setting for other political celebrations. It is a good example of how the philosopher Karl Marx was instrumentalised by the Soviet Union and the government of the German Democratic Republic.

It is all the more meaningful, then, that in autumn 1989, it was also the site of the New Forum’s Monday demonstrations, and the place where prominent speakers from all parties took to the podium in 1990.

The city reverted to its former name of Chemnitz on 1 June 1990. In a survey of residents prior to this date, over 76 per cent voted for the historical name. There were discussions over whether the Marx head should be torn down, but there was no majority in support of the idea. This has remained the case ever since. In 1990, a preservation order was put on the monument. Since then, it, the text on the building behind it and the open space around it have become a cultural monument with architectural, urban design and historical significance.

The Marx head, usually referred to by locals as the “Nischel” (skull) or “Kopp”, serves as the setting for art and advertising campaigns, concerts and performances, and also as a symbolic backdrop for political expression. Souvenirs illustrate the extent of creative interaction with this special attraction.

So why does he continue to look upon us so grimly? Perhaps because the world has not yet rid itself of injustice, bondage and modern slavery. Perhaps because dictatorships have invoked his name to suppress dissenting opinions, to imprison people who have become inconvenient, and destroy ways of life.

In this monument and the protected surrounding buildings, the city has a unique architectural ensemble that continues to provoke discussion, symbolizes a bygone era, and is part of the history of the city of Chemnitz.

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