During the corona lockdown, it has become clear to me that Berlin Parks aren’t just grass and trees and trash. They are rich in history and culture but also in political propaganda from almost forgotten times.
I’ve often cycled along Friedenstraße past this statue on the edge of Volkspark Friedrichshain. I always noticed it in the corner of my eye and thought, half-consciously, “Who the hell is this gravity-defying samurai flying through the air with a sword pointed at the sky?”
Last week I got off my bike and took a closer look. My first feeling was that this was probably the most aggressive piece of public art in Berlin, a bloodthirsty communist superhero banishing evil from the world with his magical King Arthur sword!
The bronze plaque below explains: “GEDENKSTÄTTE FÜR DIE DEUTSCHEN INTERBRIGADISTEN. SPANIEN 1936-1939”
This East German memorial was erected in 1968 in remembrance of the Germans who joined the International Brigade to fight Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. The bronze fighter was sculpted by one Fritz Cremer, a GDR art star who produced dozens of works honouring the victims of fascism. There is no disputing that the Spanienkämpfer, as they were known, deserved a memorial. They risked life and limb by going to Spain to fight, but also risked imprisonment in a concentration camp and probably death if they ever attempted to return to Hitler’s Germany. Hitler actively supported the franquistas, sending military equipment and the infamous Condor Brigade, which reduced the Basque town of Guernica to rubble in the air raids of 1937.
An estimated 3,000-5,000 German volunteers joined the Interbrigadisten. Most of them were communists who had been stripped of their German citizenship, exiled, or had been living underground in Germany before they went to Spain. The war was a chance to fight for their ideals after having suffered a devastating defeat back home when the Nazis rose to power.
It’s easy to overlook, but on the left side of the memorial stands a bronze relief depicting a gruesome battle. This is the work of a different artist, Siegfried Krepp. Just like the sword, this looks like something from the Middle Ages, a time before tanks and machine guns. The relief shows the siege of a fortified city, rivers of abstracted human bodies, piles of corpses – evoking a massive sacrifice. In the middle of this scene are the words ‘MADRID DU WUNDERBAR’, which is pretty creepy, considering how apocalyptic the image is. Those words make clear that this depicts the Nationalist siege of Madrid and the heroic holdout by the Republican forces – to which the International Brigades belonged. Despite the eventual loss of Madrid to Franco after two and a half years, news of the early Republican successes in defending the city inspired more international volunteers from across Europe to join the cause.
The German communists were respected by other anti-fascists. British poet John Cornford wrote that they were “…the finest people in some ways I have ever met. In a way they have lost everything, have been through enough to break most people, and remain strong and cheerful and humorous. If anything is revolutionary it is these comrades.”
In the early days of the German Democratic Republic, the leadership sought historical reference points upon which they could build a socialist Germany. The Spanish Civil War and German communists’ participation in it was perfect for telling the story of the communist victory over fascism. According to the historian Arnold Krammer, the Spanish Civil War took on cult status in the GDR: “Guns had been raised in communist hands against fascists, while the capitalist West stood helplessly by. The International Brigades became the first armed opposition to Hitler and were seen as the embryo of the invading Red Army.” It’s interesting that the memorial was erected in 1968, the same year as the Prague Spring, when when many people in Eastern Europe began to have serious doubts about the benevolence of the Soviet Union.
By 1989, of course, East Germans weren’t interested in the glorious revolutionary past, nor the repetition of communist propaganda. The capitalist West they saw on their TV sets offered an irresistible lifestyle. Some monuments – like the 19-metre Lenin that stood just down the street on what is now called Platz der Vereinten Nationen – were hoisted away soon after German reunification (as charmingly depicted in the film Goodbye, Lenin!). The memorial to the Spanish Civil War volunteers is considered less controversial and has been left intact. They were fighting fascists, after all, and they are also abhorred by the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany.
Still, the warrior statue seems ridiculously anachronistic. The sword – bizarrely held by an arm that reaches impossibly around the back of the fighter’s head – comes across as hopelessly ideological and absurdly violent. His other hand is clenched in a fist of solidarity. The way he’s supposed to be leaping through the air like a character with magical powers in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is pretty stupid. According to one online comment I found, this is supposed to represent a soldier charging out of a trench into battle. There was plenty of hand-to-hand bayonet combat in the Spanish Civil War. So why the sword? Because swords evokes knights and knights are the stuff of myths.
Nothing about this image convinces me that the whole 20th century communist project was a worthy one.
Instead, it reminds us of the vast tragedy that millions of people died to defeat fascism and Nazism, only to fall victim to the oppression of Stalinism and its perverse outgrowths: the gulag, the Wall, the Stasi, and so on.
To me, this memorial broadcasts a message that its makers never intended to send, which is why it’s great that it’s still standing. That message is “Beware of ideologues, beware of propaganda!”
Once I’ve sat on the nearby grass for a while, I feel a rising sense of dread. This should be a Mahnmal, I think, not just a Denkmal. A Mahnmal is a warning to future generations that says this is what happens when you let extremism into your hearts and politics. The dread I feel in front of the memorial to the fighters of the Spanish Civil War is a fear for my children and my children’s children, the fear that the coronavirus pandemic is the opening act of some kind of nasty replay of the 20th century. I fear my children and their children will be either forced to wield that sword or become its victims.