Everybody who is even slightly familiar with Russia has learned to consider Lenin monuments a common sight. The legal successor of the USSR has just over 1,100 towns and cities and approximately 6,000 Lenin monuments. On the contrary, pretty much everybody would stare at one in Germany with much surprise.
Twenty-five years ago a large chunk of East German topography was devoted to German and international communists – and Lenin was clearly amongst the most revered. However, after the DDR vanished, a rather clear line was drawn in the sand by the new unified Germany: German communists can stay, foreign ones must go. Marx and Engels as well as Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht still have dozens of streets and squares named after them in the East of the country. Even the controversial figure of Ernst Thälmann still enjoys a massive 50-ton bronze monument in Berlin.
Lenin monuments instead were subjected to an extensive and careless removal process. Dresden’s one was broken up in 1992 and its pieces were given to a stonemason, while Leipzig’s huge bronze Lenin head, which stood in front of the Soviet Pavilion at the fair was acquired by a private collector.
There exists a romanticised account of this nation-wide removal process. Remember that memorable “Goodbye Lenin!” scene featuring a head-and-shoulders Lenin being flown by a helicopter away from his legs?
Well, that flying Lenin fictionally replaced the real red granite Lenin monument, which sat enthroned on East Berlin’s Leninplatz. The movie also sweetened its actual fate. In 1992, the statue met with an iconoclast fury unknown even to the much-hated Dzerzinsky statue that stood in front of the KGB building in Moscow: it was broken up into 129 pieces, theatrically removed and buried.
Many protested the decision, others suggested to have the monument covered by climbing plants, while some, once the monument was condemned to demolition, couldn’t miss the chance to mess with and vandalise such a powerful symbol of the deceased regime.
A viable alternative to the destruction or Lenin monuments was showed by the German History Museum, which leased Eisleben’s standing-Lenin and put it on display in its entrance hall. When Ostalgia started to become a “phenomenon”, a Lenin monument appeared in 1996 at the Lex car rental in Berlin, while filmmaker Rick Minnich found the burial site of the red granite statue and dug until reaching it.
In the meantime, redeployed Russian troops abandoned the Lenin monuments which adorned former Soviet bases, while the Russian embassy decided to remove its Lenin bust from the front yard in 1997. However, almost secretly, this bust was not done away with, but only relocated to an inner yard.
For the whole 1990s the abandoned Lenins flew under the radar, suspiciously looking at the outer world from their hideouts in Eberswalde, Potsdam, Wünsdorf and Fürstenberg. Only the one in Schwerin was in plain sight in the city and has been kept there perhaps due to the strong backing that post-communists have had there since 1990.
However, the 2000s saw Lenin’s “comeback”. In 2003, his bronze head returned to Leipzig for the premier of “Goodbye Lenin!” and almost a decade later it was acquired by the DDR Museum in Bug. In 2004 artist Rudolf Herz found the remains of Dresden’s monument, bought them and launched his “Lenin on tour”, literally touring them on a truck. Eberswalde’s Lenin moved to the Luftfahrtmuseum Finowfurt in 2013 and a further Lenin inexplicably appeared at the ZAPF moving company in Berlin.
A temporary exhibition about Soviet military installations in Potsdam’s Volkspark was also organised and a Lenin bust was part of it. However, the bust was never removed and in 2007 it was even brought closer to the park’s entrance. In the meantime, the other Potsdam Lenin monument had disappeared from its pedestal in front of the Officers’ club in 2004, during the demolition of the complex. Even in its absence, it caused a row in 2006 when the proposal to have it reinstated infuriated conservative politicians, as would later happen in Eisleben.
The most sensational news came however in 2009, when the Berlin senate authorised the excavation of the old Leninplatz monument (specifically of its head), so it could join a projected exhibition at the Spandau Citadel that would bring together DDR monuments with others dating back to Prussian times, which before 1938 stood in the Siegesallee (Victory Avenue).
Lenin, on whose burial site someone had written his name in stones, as if the Bolshevik leader was actually buried there was probably sceptical – and rightfully so. Nothing seemed to follow the 2009 decision until, in August 2014, the Berlin Senate repudiated it. The reason initially given was quite ridiculous: “We don’t know where the monument is buried!”, they said.
In today’s internet age, it would have taken a seven-year old kid about five minutes to find out that the site had been excavated in the 1990s – and the German socialist press took less than 24h to show that finding it was indeed a piece of cake.
Therefore, the Berlin administration was forced to admit that its concerns were political and that doubts had emerged about whether it was “wise” to “have Lenin pass through the city and [to exhibit him in a museum”. Artists and the Spandau Citadel museum protested the decision and the Municipality quickly reconfirmed that Lenin’s head would have been excavated.
This wasn’t to be the end of it though. If the politicians had said yes, the lizards hadn’t. Yes, endangered sand lizards, which kept Lenin company for many years, living just over his head and who stalled its excavation in early 2015.
The Green and Pirate parties relentlessly defended the lizards, while the Spandau Citadel reconfirmed they really wanted Lenin’s head. Eventually, a compromise was reached. Even if the lizards hadn’t agreed, they would be moved to a new home, but this could be done only after the end of their hibernation period and before their summer mating.
Therefore, it was only on 10 September 2015, after almost 25 years spent buried in the forest, that Lenin’s head quite literally rose from the sands of time. The press milled around the excavation site and extensively covered the head’s arrival at the Spandau Citadel. Videos featuring as soundtrack the DDR anthem or romantic-heroic themes where shot, together with hundreds of photos. And in the midst of camera flashes, the historical lesson that should have been learned out of this was largely missed.
In 1992 it cost approximately 80,000 euro to demolish what in 2015 took 60,000 euro to (partially) unearth. The 1990s removal of the monument from its prime location can easily be understood and was the result of a democratic vote at the District Administration. Yet, its demolition should be regarded as nothing less than the destruction of a piece of history and work of art. Budapest, capital of a country that showed far less benevolence to post-communists and to the former regime’s legacy than Germany, instituted a park where it grouped all removed monuments, which now testify of their era and of its monumental art, devoid of any celebratory significance.
Listening to history or watching recorded footage is not enough, history ought to be also felt visually, seen and touched. Just as the Berlin Wall Memorial contains the last standing original section of the Wall, powerfully testifying of its inhumanity, a park for socialist monuments would be the best way to preserve their historical and artistic significance.