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PRINT May 2016

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“Unveiled: Berlin and Its Monuments”

Nikolai Tomsky’s Lenin monument, Berlin, September 9, 2015. Photo: Wulf Fa.

IN A HAUNTING SCENE from Good Bye Lenin! (2003), a comedy set in the early 1990s amid the profound political and cultural changes sweeping through recently unified Berlin, a piece of a monumental torso, one arm outstretched, from a gigantic statue of the Soviet leader is helicoptered along the former Stalin Boulevard. Passing the movie’s protagonist, a committed Communist, the petrified revolutionary seems to have been gently lowered from heaven, as if to reach down for a final handshake before vanishing—like socialism—for good. The scene refers to the 1991 demolition of the Soviet sculptor Nikolai Tomsky’s monument to Lenin in East Berlin. At the time, many citizens considered this controversial act of iconoclasm to be a drastic manifestation of the fact that Germany’s so-called reunification was really the West’s annexation of the East. Indeed, this send-off of Lenin was only the beginning of a craze of damnatio memoriae that included the near-complete destruction of the Berlin Wall and culminated in the revanchist replacement of the Palace of the Republic, the seat of parliament and an icon of ’70s German Democratic Republic (GDR) architecture, with a reconstruction of the castle of the Prussian king, to be completed in 2019.

The central role of Tomsky’s work in this aggressive erasure of history makes it a natural choice for “Enthüllt: Berlin und seine Denkmäler” (Unveiled: Berlin and Its Monuments), a permanent exhibition that opened last month at Berlin’s Zitadelle Spandau. Curator Andrea Theissen has included the statue’s gargantuan head in an array of more than one hundred objects tracing the fate of the many public sculptures in the city that have been targeted as a result of Berlin’s changing political constellations and turbulent history. The display begins with nineteenth-century statues of Prussian military leaders, which were removed from public parks by the Allies after World War II, and culminates in the recent past with the dismantled Lenin monument.

Made of red granite and measuring sixty-two feet high, Tomsky’s Lenin occupied a prominent position at the center of a prestigious East Berlin housing project designed by Hermann Henselmann, the GDR’s foremost architect, and was inaugurated in a grand ceremony, attended by two hundred thousand spectators, on the occasion of the leader’s hundredth birthday in 1970. Tomsky was the president of the USSR Academy of Arts in Moscow, and his selection for the commission led to tensions between the federal government and local artists, who rejected the monumental Soviet style because of its affinities with Nazi aesthetics and saw the sculpture as a symptom of the country’s totalitarian tendencies.

These historical circumstances, however, only played a minor role in the fierce controversy around the dismantling of the monument. By 1991, the sculpture had become an ideological battleground for cold warriors. Supporters of the vanished GDR tried to prevent their Lenin from being dismembered by blockading the surrounding streets. But the new capitalist government eventually succeeded, albeit with some delay, through bureaucratic trickery: It removed the monument from its list of landmarks yet agreed to preserve the disassembled fragments, thus clearing the way to its destruction. Ironically, the government had absolutely no plan for the newly emptied plaza. Its name was changed from Leninplatz to United Nations Square, and in 1994 a pathetic, diminutive fountain, a group of granite rocks representing the continents, was put there in Lenin’s stead. But the space still feels like an abandoned wasteland, the absence of Lenin’s statue making the presence of his ghost all the more palpable.

Nor did the government’s antipathy toward the giant statue abate over time. When Theissen asked for permission to exhibit this potent symbol of the flawed reunification process, city officials claimed to have no record of the monument’s exact whereabouts and flatly declared that in any case they would provide no funds for its recovery. Enter the American filmmaker Rick Minnich, who had temporarily exhumed the sculpture’s head for his 1996 documentary The Book of Lenins, and now happily guided journalists to its burial place on the outskirts of Berlin. The resulting media furor quickly spurred the politicians to allow the head’s display in Theissen’s exhibition. But events took a truly surreal turn when it was discovered that a colony of protected sand lizards had settled on the Communist leader, and environmental conservationists demanded that the lizards first be allowed to complete their hibernation and then be relocated before Lenin’s head could be unearthed and brought to the Zitadelle Spandau, where the public can now finally encounter it again.

In Moscow, of course, Lenin himself was never laid to rest. He still lies embalmed in his mausoleum as a venerated saint, looked after by a group of scientists—a privately financed effort since the collapse of the Soviet Union that continues in the face of politically motivated efforts to bury him. Germany’s anti-Communist forces, in contrast, believed that they had succeeded in ridding themselves of Lenin’s specter for good. But his imminent resurfacing—like some political undead—provides proof of the exhibition’s thesis that history ultimately cannot be covered over. Welcome Lenin! might be the name of this German farce.

Based in New York and Berlin, Benjamin Paul is a critic and an associate professor of Renaissance art history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.