PRINT November 2006


Hans Haacke’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg

EVERY BELIEF SYSTEM requires a mythical hero, idolized in death, yet whose legacy is open to multiple interpretations. In the United States, for example, blue states revere the figure of JFK; red states, Ronald Reagan. In the 1920s the Wobblies lionized Joe Hill, and in the ’70s radicals looked to Malcolm X. Today iPod-shuffling art students and e-marketing executives alike might sport Che Guevara’s ragged silhouette, a trademark for what Thomas Frank has called the “countercultural capitalist orthodoxy.” Nevertheless, for any true-blue red around the world there remains an ultimate icon: Rosa Luxemburg, fiery orator, Marxist theoretician, amateur naturalist, occasional artist, and inexhaustible political leader whose anti-Leninist credo held that working-class spontaneity must lead the party, rather than be molded by it. Thus, in 2002, when the Left returned to power in Berlin for the first time since the fall of the Wall in 1989, the new government decided to create a monument to Luxemburg. Completed this fall, the memorial, designed by Hans Haacke, now stands in the plaza that bears her name.

Born in Poland in 1871, Luxemburg studied political science, mathematics, economics, and philosophy at the University of Zurich before cofounding the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP) in 1893. Five years later she moved to Germany, where she became a citizen and was active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Luxemburg and fellow radical Karl Liebknecht publicly broke with the SPD after its vote in 1914 to support the kaiser’s entry into World War I; her left-wing splinter group, the Spartacist League, would subsequently emerge to chastise even further the SPD for its nationalist, promilitary position. But opposition to Germany’s slide into war was for Luxemburg not based on pacifism. “Rote Rosa” (Red Rosa), as she was called by friend and foe alike, decried the fact that war invariably pitted one nation’s workers against another, when all along the real enemy stood behind them in the form of the capitalist class. An uncanny grasp of the link between armed conquest and globalization is developed, for example, in her major theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism (1913). Needless to say, Luxemburg made numerous political enemies, and not only among conservatives. In the end it was the chancellor of the SPD, a former student of Luxemburg’s named Friedrich Ebert, who found her antipatriotic, antimilitarist writings and oratory too much to tolerate. On January 15, 1919, in the midst of a spontaneous workers’ uprising following the November Revolution—and a mere month after Luxemburg cofounded yet another group, the German Communist Party (KPD)—Ebert sent the Freikorps militia to arrest both her and Liebknecht. The two were executed within hours of their arrest. Death was especially grisly in Luxemburg’s case: Battered lifeless by rifle butts, her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal. A few months later it washed back up, and with it the mytho-historical icon Rosa Luxemburg breathed life.

In the eighty-seven years since Luxemburg’s demise, 
a startling range of ideological interpretations and expectations—some compatible, others conflicted, and a few simply contradictory—have been projected onto her diminutive profile by groups eager to use her as a symbol: from the Bolsheviks who slid her stinging critique of Lenin beneath the Kremlin carpet, to dissident East Germans seeking democratic reform during the cold war, to anti-Stalinist radicals of the New Left, to present-day autonomists, antiglobalization activists, and antifascists who find her anarcho-Marxist tendencies appealing. A dozen shades of pink, a dozen Rosas of the imagination. One can easily imagine, then, the difficulty of commissioning a memorial for this political figure and influential thinker. But such was the ambitious task set by the so-called red-red alliance in Berlin, a coalition created strategically in 2001 by the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS, since 2005 known as the Left Party.PDS) and the SPD, as neither group had sufficient support to govern Berlin alone.

In August 2003 Thomas Flierl, Berlin’s cultural senator (and a PDS member), established a twelve-person jury of artists, scholars, technical experts, and city officials to review proposals from twenty-three artists for a Denkzeichen in honor of Luxemburg. (Denkzeichen is literally translated as “think mark,” but “thinking memorial” reflects the full spirit of this term.) Initially the jury considered local artists such as Renata Stih, Friedrich Schnock, and Oliver Ressler. But the decades-old tension over responsibility for Luxemburg’s murder—to say nothing of the multivalent nature of the martyred figure herself—soon cast its shadow over the proceedings. Unable to reach a decision, the judges invited a second group of submissions by international artists including Hans Haacke, René Green, Michael Clegg & Martin Guttman, and Tom Burr, among others. Once again the jury wound up split—“this time between two extremely different approaches,” as historian and jury chairman Hans-Ernst Mittig recounted. While several judges backed a permanent monument offered by Haacke for Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, a second contingent supported a proposal by Argentinean artists Miguel Rothschild and María Cecilia Barbetta, titled Rosa de Luxe: a marketing plan for producing and distributing a line of T-shirts, caps, bags, and clothes, each affixed with a pink logo sporting Luxemburg’s profile and a short text. It was a memorial modified for survival within consumer culture. The jury, however, eventually settled on Haacke’s more conventional approach. It may yet prove the more seditious of the two.

The Haacke memorial is all but invisible to viewers entering the triangular Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. What one notices first is the massive Volksbühne (People’s Theater) on the plaza’s north side, and the futuristic Fernsehturm to the south; in the center one finds a park, also triangular, bordered by beige paths made of small paving stones. Gradually, however, Haacke’s memorial reveals itself. Sunk flush to the ground are dozens of elongated, lead-colored concrete bars, seemingly scattered randomly, contradicting the architectural logic of the plaza. One bar appears by itself, dug into the pavement near the U-Bahn station. Nearly two hundred feet away a number of bars are skewed obliquely in relation to the theater. Others cut across sidewalks, one is centered in Rosa Luxemburg Straße, and a few transgress pavement and street, as if adhering to a hidden geometry known only to Haacke.

On each bar is a single quotation—written in laser-cut brass letters—selected from Luxemburg’s writings on politics, economics, natural history, militarism, and economics, as well as from personal letters, many of which were written while she was in prison. (Haacke initially wanted to feature a hundred quotations, but budget constraints reduced the number to about sixty.) To make the texts easy to read, the artist limited the length of the bars to about twenty feet; longer citations are stacked in two lines separated by a horizontal indentation resembling leading, the thin metal strip typesetters used during Luxemburg’s time to add space between slugs of type. Haacke’s reference to historical forms of public communication carries over to the choice of typeface. After first trying to locate the exact font found in original editions of Luxemburg’s writings, he (along with Berlin-based architect Andreas Zerr, who is managing the project) settled on Rundfunk Antiqua, a twentieth-century serif typeface that retains the feel of prewar Europe’s aesthetic rebellion against classicism.

The result is decidedly low-key, an antimonumental memorial—but one oddly fitting the intellectually passionate, physically frail Luxemburg (as a child she developed a hip ailment) and her legacy. Indeed, Haacke’s historical invocation reveals itself fully only in juxtaposition with the present. For example, the artist makes oblique reference to the presence of former Stalinists in the modern-day PDS (and by extension to their squelching of a 1989 uprising of dissident East Germans), by placing Luxemburg’s best-known statement near the party’s headquarters: “Freedom reserved only for supporters of the government or for the members of a party, no matter how many they are, is not freedom. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.” Elsewhere, several quotations criticize the United States’ first imperialist venture, in the Philippines, and now seem prescient: “But not only the organization of the military, also the internal political and economic life of the American people is going to be affected fundamentally by the consequences of the war.” And then there is Luxemburg’s gripping denunciation of SPD Chancellor Ebert just prior to her murder in 1919: “‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ So proclaims the bourgeois press triumphantly, so proclaim Ebert and Noske, and the officers of the ‘victorious troops’ who are being cheered by the petit-bourgeois mob. . . .”

It is through this readerly attention to detail that one becomes ever more attuned to the site itself and to Haacke’s engagement with it, bringing to the fore the work’s concealed tension, which seems capable of striking both the politically empowered and the piously adversarial alike. For Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, after all, provides a cross section of German history. Originally called Babelsberger Platz, the plaza was renamed Bülow-Platz in 1914, when the neighborhood was a Jewish ghetto. Throughout the ’20s the area was a lethal combat zone where anarchists, Socialists, and Communists battled both one another and the Nazi SA. (Between 1926 and 1933 the KPD kept its headquarters on the plaza in Karl Liebknecht House—where the Left Party is located today.) When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, they changed the plaza’s name to Horst-Wessel-Platz to honor a local brownshirt, murdered three years earlier, who had penned the Nazi anthem “Die Fahne hoch” (The Flag on High). Under the Nazis, the former Karl Liebknecht House became a center for interrogation and torture. With the Allied occupation in the late ’40s, the Soviets renamed the plaza after Liebknecht, and in 1969 the East German government rechristened it for Luxemburg.

Haacke’s Denkzeichen brings to mind some of his finest work related to the critical interrogation of site. One immediately thinks of his only other permanent public project, Der Bevölkerung (To the Population, 2000). For this piece, incorporated into the restored Reichstag along with several other artists’ projects, Haacke requested that every parliament member bring soil from his or her province to deposit within a rectangular frame containing large embossed letters that spell out the title phrase. Haacke’s typeface mimics the inscription above the entrance of the Reichstag itself, which states “Dem Deutschen Volke”—but the artist replaced the nationalistic (and historically racial) reference to the “German folk” with a broader term that embraced a mixed citizenry. Opposition to the work was instantaneous. Members of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, in particular, sought to stop the project, even demanding a legendary vote in which the artwork’s merit was debated before the entire parliament. Der Bevölkerung eventually found support, and the scattered bags of soil from across Germany have resulted in the weed-and-wildflower garden that stands within the Reichstag today, finally engulfing its own dedication.

Haacke admits that he expects few will be truly happy with his new project either—not Luxemburg’s admirers, or her detractors. Formally, though, Haacke’s antimonument resonates strongly with other postwar markers found in Berlin, such as the submerged stones running down the center of Ebertstraße that indicate where the Wall once divided the city, or the one-and-a-half-square-inch bronze bars hammered into sidewalks about the city that record the names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust who once lived at each specific location. However diverse in content, these antimemorials—humble, easily overlooked—share a subdued approach to confronting public memory in a city where historical recollections inevitably stir traumatic association. And here is where Haacke’s winning proposal reveals its own critical agenda. By commemorating Luxemburg in the form of concrete texts tied to a specific site, Haacke’s memorial refuses nostalgic refuge in a ruinous past, as much as it rejects the exuberance of contemporary fashion. At the same time, the work appears to comment on the current conditions of creative production whereby artists shuffle between the roles of numinous shaman and creative entrepreneur, and where mass-produced culture soaks up the collective impulse that animated Luxemburg and Liebknecht almost a century ago. As one encounters one after another of the memorial’s dispersed citations, the complexity of Luxemburg’s legacy builds momentum, and Haacke’s Denkzeichen turns to address the present with a sense of anticipation, perhaps even with a sense of timely hope.

Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist and writer.

(The author thanks Dörthe Greschik, Gene Ray, and Paul Jaskot for their assistance with this article.)