Ernst Thälmann Statue; Durability as Material Resistance

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Been doing some research on the Ernst Thälmann statue (a gigantic bust) situated off of Greifswalder Straße in Berlin; mainly writing about how this large material bust persists despite being the near constant target of graffiti artists. Some early preservationists in the recently united Berlin of the 1990s attempted to keep statues like these but alter them subtly in the process; examples included proposals to grow ivy on the statues; however, as you can see, this form of “alteration” did not take, and instead Berliners took alteration into their own hands.

The statue in the Ernst Thälmann Park is the near constant target of graffiti artists. Admittedly, Berlin is no stranger to creative street art, but the statue’s historical legacy with graffiti makes it a pressing concern for the state, especially in maintaining its appearance. By keeping the statue free of graffiti, the state protects its past. Particularly important for Germany, the state must not appear to hide the past, and letting graffiti linger a little too long would constitute objectionable concern by some that state maintenance implies keeping the parks clean. However, the inverse is also important, which is that graffiti constitutes some contemporary context of how the past is viewed in the present, thus, political expression in the form of graffiti ought not to be removed too quickly either for fear of acting as evidence of abundant pride in the past. As a less than scientific, but no less real testament to this idea, we conducted a modest data collection using Google images; we documented the outcome of a search for “Ernst Thälmann Park” and recorded in order whether the image contained the Ernst Thälmann statue and, for those that do, we determined if the statue was depicted with graffiti. Of the first 100 pictures from the search, we learn that the Thälmann statue is not visible in 59 of the 100 pictures (59%); however, when the statue is present in the image, in 29 of the 41 pictures (71%) the statue is depicted with visible graffiti. We also depict our findings in a bar graph where each observation is presented in the order that they appeared in the Google image search. In the chart, zero implies that the image did not contain the statue, one implies that the statue was visible, and two implies that the statue visibly contained graffiti. We observe a trend. If scores are averaged for every ten observations in order, then we that the prevalence of seeing a graffitied Thälmann decreases the deeper one goes into the image search, thus, the earliest images are the most likely to contain graffiti. In 1-10, the average observation is 1.5, a middle-range observation from 51-60 is 0.6, while the late observations from 81-90 is 0.3, hence, the general downward trend. We assume unscientifically that early images in searches such as these are the operant visual identity of the images that appear, thus, the earliest images viewers see of the Thälmann statue is likely to be a graffitied statue.

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In Brian Ladd’s 1997 The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, we learn why the statue persists despite the reality that its contemporary identity hinges largely on its use as a receptacle for urban art. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a unified Berlin had to determine which monuments to maintain, and, according to Ladd (1997: 201), monuments were to be estimated on their “historical rather than political value.” How to honor the past required consideration of how to also transforms the spaces of their memorialization. For example, proposals during the 1990s included “proposals to plant vegetation in the paved ceremonial spaces around many GDR monuments, or even to grow ivy on the statues,” as a means to “preserve statues, affirm tradition, and at the same time turn politically defined urban spaces into something different” (Ladder 1997: 201). Berlin government officials commissioned an independent group, primarily composed of preservationists, who made compelling claims in their final report to maintain the monuments as part of the “GDR’s interpretation of history,” and in the end “the commission recommended the outright removal of only a few monuments” (primarily related to border guards), although alteration to standing monuments was utilized, in particular, related to the text changes featured in the context of plaques. According to Ladd (1997: 203),

[Ernst] Thälmann [had] … a great deal to do with the image cultivated by the GDR’s leadership. They fashioned a Thälmann who would serve the function that Lenin served for Stalin and his successors: the hero whose prestige and authority they inherited. They suppressed portrayals of Thälmann as a suffering concentration camp inmate in favor of Thälmann as antifascist hero. The combination of historical falsification, authoritarian gesture, and bombastic design understandably made the statue unpopular after 1989.

By 1993, a tone of “universal acceptance” had a toe-hold among preservationists, and

[t]he passage of time worked in their favor: after several years of united Germany, the Thälmann monument was on its way to becoming a historical relic of a past regime, perhaps worth preserving as a document of GDR political ritual. But the strongest argument in favor of keeping the monument, at least provisionally, was its size: no one was willing to pay for its demolition. Meanwhile, the accumulating graffiti around the statue’s base made it clear enough that the heroic Thälmann no longer met with favor. By 1995, three neatly stenciled words higher on the pedestal commented on the fate of the man and his monument: “Imprisoned–murdered–besmeared.” (Ladd 1997: 203)

Now, the most common form of “alteration” to the Thälmann statue appears not in the form of vegetation, but alteration through art; graffiti is added and subtracted, but the monument resists removal, if only through its size, the costliness of its removal, and its life is thusly extended also by benefit of its having been preserved in the first place during the 1990s.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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