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Jörg Benario: Marx the Jewish atheist

Jörg Benario, born in East Berlin, has been a tour guide for 30 years. He remembers Marx the atheist Jew

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Photo: Maria Abadia

My Marx: We spoke with seven Berliners on what Marx means to them today. Check out the previous profile here.

My first encounter with Marx was in Moor and the Ravens of London – a book about Karl Marx saving children from child labour that was popular in East Berlin in the 1970s. So he was omnipresent from first grade on. Until the age of 12 or so, there was the holy trinity – Marx, Engels, and Lenin – Stalin was cut out in 1953. There was a very ominous subject in school called Staatsbürgerkunde from seventh grade, basically civics, during which teachers we called the “150 Percenters”, those 150 percent convinced of everything – would feed us the holy doctrine.

But when we started to develop our own political consciousness, we started to see the difference between Marx and Murks (“botch”). It’s a very typical German thing: Marx is the theory and Murks is the praxis, it’s just a botch job. In school we never read Marx in full, only fragments, usually taken out of context for whatever met the state’s requirements, and you were thinking, “Oh, that stuff’s crap”. I mean you had to read the Communist Manifesto, but you didn’t really come too close to works like Das Kapital.

In the East, Marx wasn’t a Jew. You had to find that out for yourself. 

Growing up in the DDR as a Jewish person was something special. There weren’t many of us – I actually didn’t know I was Jewish until I was seven. My parents and my grandparents didn’t want to bother me with that – in the 1970s you basically didn’t know who raised your classmates, if it was an SS grandfather you didn’t know. In the East, Marx wasn’t a Jew. That he had two rabbis for grandfathers, that you had to find out yourself. Strangely it seems people still don’t know he was a Jew: On a tour around the Berlin Jewish Museum when it opened in the early 2000s I asked, “But where is Heinrich Heine? Where’s Karl Marx?” And our guide said, “Well, they were not Jewish, they converted”. I said, “But that doesn’t make them non-Jewish!”

When I’m giving tours to Jewish groups, I call it the Museum for Goyim (non-Jewish people). I actually got sacked in East Germany for telling jokes about the Wall and about Honecker to one of my tour groups – some Stasi guy reported me (laughs).

What I take from Marx is trying to find out, to make the world a fairer place. I think that was his intention. Though I’m religion-phobic, I think the concepts of atonement and forgiveness are important – that’s maybe something Marx could have taken more of from religious texts. Without forgiveness revolutions end in bloody revenge, it is only through forgiveness that we can create a truly classless society. “Religion is the opium of the people”. He didn’t say for the people. That’s an important distinction people often forget. I don’t believe in Marx “believers”, because Marx tried to find a scientific, materialist approach and you can’t believe in a philosopher.


Jörg Benario was born in East Berlin in 1967. His great-cousin Olga Benario, a Jewish communist, was murdered in the Nazi Euthanasia Centre at Bernburg in 1942. He has been a tour guide in Berlin for over 30 years.