TRIER, Germany – Nearly two centuries ago, the 17-year-old son of a vineyard owner left this tranquil riverside city on the edge of the Prussian empire to make his way in the world — and maybe shake it up a bit.
On Saturday, after inspiring untold numbers of revolutions, repressive regimes and ponderous grad school seminars, Karl Marx came home. In bronze. By way of China. And, oh, he’s now 18 feet tall.
The unveiling of a two-ton, Chinese-funded sculpture to honor the German philosopher on the 200th anniversary of his birth brought scads of tourists to Trier, where his life began.
While here, they took in Marx lectures, toured the Marx family home and bought vast quantities of marked-up Marx souvenirs. (The Marx rubber duckies — wild gray mane framing bright orange bill — were a particular hit.)
The capitalist exploitation of his birthday may not have thrilled the author of the Communist Manifesto. But the proponent of proletarian uprisings might have been cheered by another facet of the celebration: the struggle. Not of the class variety. But a bitter one, nonetheless.
The city is split over whether a democratic nation such as Germany should be erecting monuments that are paid for, designed and built by an authoritarian one such as China. The divide spilled into the streets Saturday with dueling demonstrations for and against the monolith, forming a noisy backdrop to the statue’s official dedication.
City officials say they see nothing wrong with the statue’s unusual path to Trier’s downtown. The statue, Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe insisted, is not about the “glorification” of Marx. Instead, he told the crowd, it’s meant to spark conversation — and strengthen international bonds.
“It’s a gesture of friendship,” he said.
But others in Germany — a nation divided for nearly a half-century due in no small part to its native son’s theories — say city officials are being naive about a project that neatly aligns with Chinese state propaganda.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a political agenda behind it,” said Christian Soffel, a Chinese studies professor at Trier University.
How important Marx is to that agenda was underlined by the visit of two senior Chinese officials who spoke at Saturday’s ceremony. The officials — the country’s ambassador to Germany and the deputy chief of the Information Ministry, the government’s propaganda arm — each paid tribute to Marx, though not in terribly Marxian terms.
The ambassador, Shi Mingde, said China had “modernized” Marx’s theories — a veiled reference to the country’s hearty embrace of much of modern capitalism — and boasted that China is responsible for 30 percent of global economic growth.
“For that,” he said, “we can thank Karl Marx.”
China had already held its own lavish event to honor the bicentennial. On Friday, President Xi Jinping heralded Marx as “the greatest thinker of modern times” at a ceremony to mark his birthday at the Great Hall of the People.
At the critical moment of Saturday’s unveiling, Chinese and German officials together pulled back a red drape to reveal a rendering of Marx in full stride — a book clutched beneath his left arm, his right gently pressed to his signature frock coat.
Not so long ago, Germany was tearing down statues of Marx. An icon of communist East Germany, his likeness was scrubbed from many a town square after the country’s reunification under democracy and capitalism in 1990.
And that is the way it should stay, said Dieter Dombrowski, who spent 20 months in an East German prison after getting caught trying to flee the country.
“Marx wrote the cookbook for communist dictatorships all over the world,” said Dombrowski, who now chairs an organization that advocates on behalf of those who were victims of such regimes.
He called the decision by Trier to allow China to build an enormous Marx statue “tragic and laughable all at once.”
“In Trier, and in the West as a whole, no one read Marx. They don’t have a sense for the history,” he said. “It was all far away from them. But we know both his theories and how they were put into practice.”