A skatepark with a ghostly communist past

In a corner of Berlin lies an abandoned communist-era landmark, the Ernst Thälmann Park. Giovanni Cadioli takes a trip and finds that the park has found a new identity – as a makeshift skatepark.

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Ernst Thälmann monument in 2013 after a routine cleaning. Photo: Giovanni Cadioli

To say that Berlin is a city full of history is to state the obvious. Yet, most of the history Berlin is known for no longer physically exists. Berlin’s recent divided past is a different story. That world ceased to exist only 26 years ago and was not razed to the ground by Soviet artillery, as Nazi Berlin was. It instead quietly vanished. Bits of the Wall have become open-air museums, while some splinters of it lay abandoned in several hidden spots along the former frontier. The Fernsehturm (Television Tower), once the pride of the East German capital, has become a symbol of modern Berlin, while in the city, many streets and tube stations still bear the names of German communists.

Yet not every bit of former East Berlin has found a place in the post-Wall city. The Lenin monument, which sat enthroned on Leninplatz, met with an iconoclast fury unknown even to the much-hated Dzerzinsky statue that stood in front of the KGB building in Moscow. Against popular protests, in 1991-92 the monument was broken up into 129 pieces and later buried.

A few landmarks of the former socialist capital have remained in limbo – not integrated into the new Berlin, they haven’t been demolished either. They simply still stand, unknown to most. The Ernst Thälmann Park, located in the Prenzlauer Berg district, is one such landmark.

ADD-ZB/Settnik/15.4.1986/Berlin: Ernst-Thälmann-Park/Nach nur dreieinhalbjähriger Bauzeit entstand im traditionsreichen Berliner Arbeiterbezirk Prenzlauer Berg auf dem Gelände des ehemaligen Gaswerkes der Ernst -Thälmann-Park. 13 Meter hoch ist die vom sowjetischen Bildhauer Lew Kerbel entworfene Bronzeplastik für den großen deutschen Revolutionär Ernst Thälmann.
The monument after the opening in 1986. Photo: German Federal Archive (Wikimedia Commons)

Named after the man who led the KPD (German Communist Party) from 1925 until 1933, the park was built in fairly recent times on the area occupied until 1981 by a coal gas plant. The grandiose project envisioned an inhabited park with a large monument, a pond, a swimming pool, a planetarium, a school and housing for 4.000 people. Construction started in 1983 and the whole complex was inaugurated on 16 April 1986, Thälmann’s 100th birthday.

The landmark of the whole park is the 50 tonne bronze monument dedicated to Thälmann and to the Rotfrontkämpferbund (Alliance of Red Front-Fighters), a paramilitary organisation linked to the Communist Party, active between 1924 and 1929. The meaning of its iconography is not immediate. A large banner waves from a flagpole adorned with a hammer and sickle; Thälmann’s profile as well as the communist raised fist stand out. The fist, however, is not raised at all and in fact looks a bit odd, down there below Thälmann’s face. The truth is that it doesn’t actually belong to him but stands for the Rotfrontkämpferbund’s logo.

In the early 1990s it was decided that Thälmann’s monument was to follow the same fate as Lenin’s. Perhaps its sheer weight, or the fact that it took four months and 100.000 Marks to dismantle the Lenin statue, dampened the spirits. Two granite blocks with political slogans were removed and the monument was simply abandoned. More recently, the monument became a protected landmark and since 2006 the city council has been in charge of basic maintenance.

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‘incarcerated, assassinated, besmeared’ – a graffiti protesting against the monument’s abandonment (1997). Photo: Stiangutten (Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays the park appears to be split in two. The planetarium, pond and swimming pool areas look neat and are taken good care of, and the concrete flat blocks, while not the fanciest housing in Berlin, look fairly solid. In contrast, the area where the monument is located seems entirely abandoned. The park has grown into an intricate forest and the pathways through it are littered with garbage. Grass has been growing high on the paved surface of the monument square, where two thick poles with six spotlights each stand rusty and unplugged. The outside of the park is covered in graffiti and the large metal letter “P” from the inscription “Ernst Thälmann Park” is missing, perhaps stolen.

Given the closeness of the Volkspark Friedrichshain (People’s Park) and of the more presentable side of the Thälmann Park itself, families are rarely seen strolling near the imposing bronze monument. Instead, the park has been taken over by Berlin’s youth.

Protected landmark or not, the monument is just too attractive for graffiti artists, who continue to take advantage of its broad surfaces. Its granite blocks and the stairs on the square have also become a perfect spot for skateboard and mountain bike acrobatics, while breakdancing to the sound of loud hip hop music is often performed under Thälmann’s unperturbed profile. However, the DDR sculptors probably didn’t plan the monument with health and safety provisions for dancers and acrobats in mind and the square routinely witnesses painful-looking tumbles.

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The monument as a canvas – Thälmann in June 2015. Photo: Giovanni Cadioli

In the rain, the square is always deserted and displays a rather depressing ton sur ton collection of greys. Although it is precisely in these moments that the monument conveys all its serious and dramatic essence. Thälmann’s expression appears even more severe. The imposing bronze flag also performs a much needed function when summer eventually decides to visit Berlin, bringing temperatures as high as 40°C: it creates a large shadow. Resting figures follow that shadow, moving around the rectangular granite pedestal, while a few others sunbathe.

Even if the everyday life of the monument square has become apolitical, the true meaning of the monument itself hasn’t been forgotten, not by friends, nor by foes. On meaningful dates, such as the anniversary of Thälmann’s death, red and DDR banners can once again be seen in the square, while in 2013 the youth branch of the FPD (Free Democratic Party) demonstrated in front of the monument with cardboard models of dynamite, requesting its removal. The latest notable event was the very ordered demonstration of fifty garden gnomes, who positioned themselves in front of Thälmann’s monument, all raising their fists, on 1 May 2014.

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An unusual hangout. Photo: Giovanni Cadioli

It is understandable why this particular monument put the post-1989 Berlin authorities in a difficult situation. German communists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are honoured by streets and tube stations in Berlin, but they were killed by fascist paramilitaries in 1919, after an uprising they did not fully endorse was crushed in blood. Plus, none of the two was celebrated in socialist times with 50 tonnes of bronze. Thälmann was, and his legacy is highly divisive. The KPD Chairman acted as Soviet emissary throughout the 1920s and early 1930s and turned into a devoted Stalinist, crucially contributing to weaken the Social-Democratic governed Weimar Republic, whose collapse opened the way for the rise of Nazism.

Restoring the monument to its old glory is therefore simply impossible. Turning it into an open-air museum, with proper historical background provided, could be a solution. But why deprive the young people who hang out by the monument of a place they actually help to keep alive? A few boards for graffiti, some half or quarter pipes and benches could make of it one of the most exceptional skateparks in the world, with a style worthy of Berlin.

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