The Bohemian Lenin of Gelsenkirchen: A Western Diagnosis of a Deflated Eastern Party Balloon
// Holt Meyer – 2 October 2020
Imagine all of the statues of figures of the Confederacy from the US Civil War of 1861-1865 being eliminated from the soil of the United States. We are talking here about a country often, despite everything, viewed as the “center of the West”. The elimination is and would be ascribable to a general recognition that these statues and these figures do not represent the “tradition” of the region anymore. Imagine the universal claim taking hold that, for instance, Robert E. Lee did not represent values and a political project which one should ever have considered viable. This day may come in the USA or may already have come. In this case one might say: What Lee was to the Americans 2020, Lenin was to the Czechs thirty years previously, in 1990. The same can be said about the Ukrainians after 2004, a story I mention but will not dwell on here, although it is of eminent relevance for the questions of statues in East and West, and Lenin in L’viv compared to Robert E. Lee in a ‘liberated’ Virginia could allow for a magnificent global analysis of the West and the imperial.
But let us stay more or less local. Most of the Lenin statues in the Czech lands were taken down rather quickly in the course of the early 90s, having been long viewed by a large part of the population – particularly after the Warsaw pact invasion of 1968 - as the sign of a foreign oppressor and of a totalitarian ideology. In June 2020, one of these statues, erected in 1957 on the grounds of a factory in a small Bohemian town Hořovice in the Beroun district southwest of Prague, was restored, painted silver, and put up again in Gelsenkirchen, a city in a territory that used to be called (and in a surprising number of articles on my subject is still called) “West Germany”.
It is here, in the Horst district of the town, that the German “Marxist-Leninist Party” has its Federal headquarters. The city administration made great efforts to prevent the placement of the statue, and the date of the event was put off several times (see, among other things, the hashtag #keinplatzfuerlenin). But in the end the administration and its supporters failed. So now the Leninist headquarters has its own very special Lenin.
The statue had been purchased by the „Marxist-Leninist” fringe group from an Austrian businessman for 16,000 Euros.
The Gelsenkirchen Stadt-Spiegel provided the main data:
Origin: Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
Design: by the artist Vladimir Kyn from Horovice
Cast: 1957 in 750 h in Horovice
Casters: Vaclav Brezina, Josef Slosar und Dominik Abrham
Unveiling: 19 December 1957 at the area of the machine factory Horovice
With its 260,000 inhabitants, Gelsenkirchen is the 11th largest city of Germany's most populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the 25th largest city of Germany. It lies at the centre of the Ruhr, the largest urban area of Germany.
Gelsenkirchen is not extremely affluent, and, ironically, is described as the (former) "West German" town which is most similar to impoverished East German towns of the early 90s (thanks to my colleague Anna Förster for pointing to this circumstance and to this source from Febraury of 2020: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/armut-der-osten-im-westen-1.4787875).
Gelsenkirchen is not really known for its throngs of Marxist Leninists, but rather is better known internationally as the home of the German Premier League soccer team Schalke 04. It finished the last season number 12 of 18 teams in the league and in its first game of the new season on September 18 was soundly trounced 8-0 by Bayern München, but it has seen better times in the recent past, with remarkable Russian encounters. In an exemplary East-West show, it played in the Champions League in the 2018-2019 season, defeated Locomotive Moscow in the qualifying round and lost to Manchester City (2-10) in the R16. In the European league of 2015-2016 it was defeated by Shakhtar Donezk and thus thrown out of the tournament. Games like this are the normal source of Gelsenkirchen’s fame in Europe.
But this summer, in the midst of the COVID crisis and a lackluster football season, a different kind of European notoriety beyond the borders Germany flickered up in the otherwise unspectacular town in early summer 2020: the Lenin statue incident.
In this West Window I would like to work through some ‘occidental’ aspects of this case.
Let’s start with a typical headline on the event: “First Lenin Statue in West Germany”. „Das einzige Lenin-Denkmal in West-Deutschland”
There is something enticing about that. I wouldn’t presume to contradict, so let us assume it is so: that this is the first statue on the territory of what used to be “West Germany”, i.e. the Bundesrepublik Deutschland at a time when there was still the GDR (one could ask for at least that amount of precision). The subtext of such headlines is: “the East enters the West”. But which East?
Has the dictatorship of the GDR been restored in the “East”? For these are the conditions of the ‘Eastern Lenins’, be they from Czechoslovakia or the GDR. No one will want to claim that the ca. 50 Lenin statues in the GDR were placed there on grass-roots popular demand of the local population. At best it was the ruling party SED, if not directly Soviet authorities which managed the planting of symbols of Bolshevism (and some of these statues, as in Potsdam, were located on Soviet owned territory). These are the terms under which the “East” was the East (although, the case of Potsdam, one traveled from West Berlin further to the west in order to reach the Hegelallee where one Soviet owned Lenin stood).
Now I will return to my hypothetical case with Confederate statues. Imagine if racists and/or neo-Nazis bought a Robert E. Lee statue taken down in, say, in Charlottesville, Virginia and erected it somewhere in Germany, perhaps on one of the Civil War reenactment sites, where it was reported a while ago that certain participants enjoy playing the Confederate side:
I can imagine the uproar would be significant if anyone found out about it.
How would we analyze this from the point of view of “East” and “West”? Here is one option: part of ‘white America’ (in turn as part of the “West”, or indeed after WWII as leader of the “West”), which as a whole prospered with not much of a guilty conscience on land stolen from one ‘non-white race’, using labor exerted by slaves from another ‘non-white race’, decided to try to atone for at least for the latter atrocity, e.g. by reducing segregation, improving the chances of African Americans to vote, and like measures. This process is overlayed by a general historiography which repeats the Civil War by pitting the ‘enlightened’ North against the ‘backward’ South, the former thus presenting itself as a more civilized form of the “West” than the latter, which is consigned to the garbage dump of history.
The flag and the heroes of the Confederation, that ‘garbage’ (a statue tossed away), is taken from the dump and displayed – worst case, by those who approve of the murderous, terrorist and racist policies of slavery, and best case, as some claim, as an expression of an affirmative attitude towards “tradition” and one’s own “biography” (as it is put in terms of the past of former GDR citizens, which has always fascinated me, since life is transferred into a narrative which is shaped, formed in one way or another, and mostly told after one is dead, something which could be transferred to and from Lenin). That latter option is, these days, fading as an option or collapsing into the first. When, for instance, the legislature of Mississippi bans the Confederate flag from its state flag, it blocks the path towards the cultivation of ‘Confederate tradition’. This is symptomatic of the manner in which America wants to be recognized as a part of “Western civilization”.
If people in Germany – of all places - would show themselves to be insensitive to this, they would share the same fate, and be excluded from the “occident”, just as the allies rightly did in the case of the Nazis 75 years ago.
Apparently, Lenin is a different case. He no longer causes great excitement – as a Hitler or Goebbels statue, for instance clearly would.
30 years after the fall of the wall, the Czechs did not seem to be extremely upset about the reappearance of ‘their’ Lenin in Gelsenkirchen. The articles in Czech newspapers were written in a soberly amused tone. For no one fears the return of ‘Eastern’ totalitarian rule in the country.
In the context of this West Window one might simply say that the NATO and EU member Czech Republic feels itself solidly located in and protected by “organizations of the West”.
This was not the case 38 years ago, when, in the aftermath of the Warsaw pact invasion of 1968, a Lenin statue was erected in November of 1972 on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the “October Revolution” when on “October Revolution Square”, as the current Victory Square (Vítězné náměstí) in the Prague 6 district was called between 1952 and 1990.
The Czech magazine “Respekt” printed a picture of it from March of 1984 in one of its recent editions:
On the day of the anniversary of the “October Revolution“, the East German central Communist (Socialist Unity Party) newspaper “Neues Deutschland”, sporting a large headline celebrating the October Revolution on its front page, printed a small article on the event in Prague:
It reads in English
Lenin monument unveiled
PRAGUE (ADN corr.). A Lenin monument was solemnly unveiled on Monday on the "Square of the October Revolution" in Prague-Dejvice. The General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Gustav Husák, President Ludvik Svoboda, Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal and other members of the party and state leadership of the CSSR and a Soviet government delegation headed by the member of the CPSU Central Committee and Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Vladimir Novikov participated in the ceremony.
In a speech, Antonin Kapek, a member of the Presidium of the CPC Central Committee, described the monument as "a symbol of our loyalty to socialism and an expression of our determination to continue unshakably on Lenin's path".
The “tens of thousands”, if they were in fact there, were most probably ordered by their factories to appear on the square where 24 years previously the success of the Communist Putsch was announced by Klement Gottwald. All the more so since the central “Leninist” powers had invaded Czechoslovakia 4 years previously in order to impose the Brezhnevite “limited sovereignty” on the country.
If for some reason the Lenin had simply stayed there, like, until recently, the statue of the Soviet general Konev just a few blocks from Victory Square on the Street of Yugoslav Partisans (this name also being a holdover from old times), it would be analogous to the bust of Theodor Neubauer on the campus of the Erfurt University, or of Yuri Gagarin on the Gagarin Ring in that same town of Erfurt: It would be a lifeless thing left standing faute de mieux. This text from the GDR newspaper would still be as dead, since bereft of its context, as the GDR propaganda words on the Theodor Neubauer statue, using the GDR code-word “murdered by fascists” (instead of “National Socialists” or “Nazis” which would be correct). It would, like many Lenins left standing in Russia, a result of inertia and intellectual and perhaps also moral laziness.
But the migration of the Lenin of Hořovice in Bohemia to Gelsenkirchen in “West Germany” is an act which represents a political time warp, with German “Leninists” seeming to have been asleep for the last 100 years (for anyone looking closely already in 1920, it was clear that Lenin with his henchman Dzerzinski was capable of atrocities which caused doubts also for an unquestionable socialist like Rosa Luxemburg, who, by the way, also has a statue from the 70s which remains standing in Erfurt).
This triumph of something like “Eastern socialism”, as belated as it is absurd, in Western Germany of all places, particularly in its Ruhr region, long emptied of its feisty proletariat which worked in its now disappeared factories, is spiced up by the Lenin’s Czech origins. The statue comes from a country which almost universally embraces the thought of Masaryk, who was deeply mistrustful of Lenin, not to speak of Stalin.
The migration of the master of an ‘Eastern triumph’ over “Western imperialism”, from a factory site in Bohemia to the headquarters of a “far left” fringe party can cause many twists and turns of thought. One only has to look to intellectual and institutional descendent of Dzerzinski sitting in the Kremlin, the KGB man Putin who started his career in the “East German” town of Dresden; to the former German chancellor Schröder who works has a high-level executive at the Gazprom company, which is coincidentally (or not coincidentally) the main sponsor of the football team Schalke 04 in Gelsenkirchen whose logo appears on the team’s uniforms. We have a man of German descent sitting in the White House (by the way, he supports the retention of Confederate symbols) who was bailed out of bankruptcies by Russians in the 90s already (as Catherine Belton meticulously documents in her recent book Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West), and thus perhaps has given Putin decades of kompromat to work with (making Trump owned by the descendants of the KGB). This, in turn, is odd considering the fact that Trump and Putin in the 1980s had (work, family) residence status not far from each other, in Dresden and “Gottwaldov” (now Zlin, in Moravia), where Trump repeatedly visited his then wife’s family with his children, the oldest of whom claims to speak passable Czech.
Which brings us back to the Czech Republic as a core country of the “West”, delighted to be rid of one more Lenin, but not getting worked up about it either way.
One thinks of Karl Marx’ saying on history repeating itself for the second time as a farce, but perhaps in the case of the Gelsenkirchen Lenin the repetition is not even worthy of being called farce. It is more the image of a ridiculous deflated party (pun intended) balloon which befits the carnivalesque silver-painted founder of Bolshevism. This, in turn, is a sign of a seemingly endlessly flexible and malleable ‘western capitalism’, beyond all considerations of territory (as Hardt and Negri analyzed in their epoch-making and epoch-defining Empire book), for which one Lenin more or less is nothing but a matter of merchandizing.
And there he stands, in Gelsenkirchen-Horst, surrounded by absurdly puffed-up comrades reminiscent of the men in Moscow who dress up as Pushkin, Lenin and Stalin hoping for tourists to approach them to be photographed with them. There he is looking in into a “West German” airspace just as nondescriptly everyday European as the wall of the warehouse where it was spruced up for the honor of being the “only Lenin in West Germany”, a phrase so bereft of meaning that it was quickly forgotten in both “East” and “West”, wherever that might be in today’s Germany, and today’s Europe.