The dead remind us – the Memorial to the Socialists, Berlin

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“Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden”
(Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently) – Rosa Luxemburg

Alexanderplatz was frozen and empty on Sunday morning, the shops shuttered against the cold wind that seemed to be blowing in directly from Siberia along the Karl-Marx-Allee. From the station in the shadow of the TV Tower we climbed down the stairs to the underground line east, catching the U5 to Lichtenberg. It was busy, surprisingly so for a Sunday morning. But the occasional rolled and red flag leaning against the side of the carriage, or the more common sight of a bunch of red carnations carried in gloved hands told the story of all this early morning activity. At Frankfurter Tor half the carriage emptied, at Lichtenberg the other half did likewise. Different departure points but they – we – all had the same destination in mind; the Memorial to the Socialists at the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery.

On the 15th January 1919 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, co-founders of the Spartakusbund that would become the Communist Party of Germany, were murdered by members of the Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary group mainly made up of World War I veterans. It would be months before their bodies were found (and there is some debate on this) and buried in Friedrichsfelde, already the final resting place of social democrats, socialists and communists… with Luxemburg and Liebknecht it would become Berlin’s central “memorial to the revolution”, with a monument designed in 1926 by Mies van der Rohe and later destroyed by the Nazis after their rise to power.

Following the Second World War and the division of Germany, Lichtenberg and the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery was in the east, part of the German Democratic Republic, whose leaders commissioned a new memorial in 1951 for the “Memorial to the Socialists”. With the words “Die toten mahnen uns” (the dead remind us) it became the final resting place not only for Luxemburg and Liebknecht, but also other socialist leaders from both before the GDR and after its foundation. Every second Sunday in January the various groupings of the left in Germany as well as numerous individuals and families make their way to the memorial to pay their respects, leaving red carnations on the graves or in front of the memorials of their fallen heroes. The official demonstration began at Frankfurter Tor, but hundreds of others – including ourselves – took the train to Lichtenberg to make our own way to the memorial, alongside the railway tracks and through the newspaper sellers and information stands of the various different groupings, whether the Left Party – who sit in the federal parliament – or the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany – who don’t.

At the memorial itself speakers broadcast suitably sombre and yet stirring orchestral music, and we dropped our red carnations. It was interesting to observe where the flowers fell, with most being reserved for Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and certain members of the old regime receiving certainly less than an equal share. It was clear that everyone had their own reasons to be there, and participation did not mean approval for the ideologies or policies of the various groupings on show, or even approval of those whose who had been laid to rest there. If the dead – these dead – should remind us of anything, it is that there are always things that are worth the struggle, something that stuck home most of all as I cast my eyes down a long list of German-sounding names of men and women who had died in the heat and the battle of the Spanish Civil War.

Other people also took the time to step out from the central memorial and visit the graves of family and friends elsewhere in the cemetery, whilst we were tasked with explaining to our six-year-old daughter what we were doing there. In turn, she explained to us about Martin Luther King, who they had been learning about at school… and who was born on the 15th January 1929, exactly ten years after the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The dead remind us indeed…

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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2 thoughts on “The dead remind us – the Memorial to the Socialists, Berlin

  1. Phil Scraton

    From the moment I first read her work Rosa became an inspiration for my politics, my scholarship, my relationships and my daily routines. The above quote is attached to my signature and at a time when pressures have never been greater on school and university students to train track their ideas and concentrate solely on ‘useful knowledge’ (whatever that means) thinking differently, oppositionally – what the late great Stan Cohen refers to as the necessity of nurturing ‘an inquiring mind’ – has never been more important. Rosa’s contribution went beyond socialist politics, touching the essence of what it is to be human – to be humanitarian in its broadest sense. All great advances – political, personal (what on earth could be the distinction?!), intellectual – have been predicated on mobilising the ‘optimism of the will’ (to steal from Antonio Gramsci) in combatting the ‘pessimism of the intellect’. It is also an optimism of the spirit, fired by the capacity and willingness to think differently, generating resistance to the mundane and the oppressive, creating an irrepressible collective social and political force to be reckoned with. A few years ago, standing with family and friends at the Friedrichsfelde memorial, the emotion of memory was matched by an equally powerful emotion of hope. They might have murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but they never extinguished the flame.

  2. Pingback: Vietnam in Berlin: The Dong Xuan Center | Under a Grey Sky

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