Lenin statue in Berlin pits east against west again East Berliners feel they have no voice

October 10, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Statues of Lenin lie toppled in some of the remotest outposts of the former communist empire in Europe, but the Soviet Union's founder still dominates a busy downtown intersection in Germany's capital -- protected by an unlikely coalition of artists and working-class locals.

Never removed during the East German revolution, the 62-foot granite statue of Lenin originally became part of a quiet debate among historians about the future of 800 memorials to communist heroes in former East Germany. That calm ended, however, when western politicians began to insist on Lenin's removal, regardless of local opinion.

Now, many east Berliners defend the statue as part of their history. They bristle at what they see as yet another decision being made about their lives by western politicians.

"It's not the greatest piece of artwork, but it doesn't hurt," said Ingrid Berg, 52, a secretary who lives in a nearby apartment. "And anyway, why do they have to destroy everything?"

Former East Germans feel overwhelmed by the transformations of the past year, which has seen everything from their money to their citizenship change, Mrs. Berg said. The prospect of losing a familiar landmark is one blow too many.

Everything that used to be ours is being destroyed," Mrs. Berg ** said.

This is a feeling shared by a surprising number of east Berliners, said Volker Hassemer, a Berlin City Council member from the conservative Christian Democratic Union who is in charge of city planning.

"I thought everyone would be happy to see Lenin removed and at least put in a museum," Mr. Hassemer said. ". . . I was surprised."

Although the local district council did agree to rename the square next year from Leninplatz [Lenin Square] to United Nations Platz, it voted against Lenin's removal. A thousand people living in the area have signed a petition calling for the statue toremain.

However, the central city government is trying to override the district council's decision.

Although some east Berliners said they thought it was high time that Lenin disappear, many thought the $25,000 removal cost could be better spent on the unemployed.

And they resented the fact that the west Berlin politicians who now run the united city had not sought their opinion.

Mrs. Berg's neighbor, Margot Suhler, 53, said she thought it was unfair that east Berliners were being told to change their half of the city while statues and street names in honor of undemocratic figures remain in west Berlin.

"If they can have their Bismarck Strasse," she said of the major street named after the Prussian chancellor, "then why can't we have a few things from our past?"

Mrs. Berg agreed, saying that almost all peoples have their dark sides.

Mr. Hassemer, however, said it is "profoundly embarrassing" that while Lenin statues are being toppled all around the continent, Berlin is the only city whose citizens want theirs to remain.

Other politicians argue that a commission should be set up to study the communist memorials, which include statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as a bizarre 20-foot head of former German Communist leader Ernst Thaelmann that stares at people from the side of a park.

Until everyone has been consulted, Lenin should remain, said Green Party member Barbara Petersen, after she and a group of artists hired a crane and plastered a banner saying "No Violence!" across Lenin's chest.

'We can't act as though East Berlin was not the capital of a communist country for 40 years," she said. "This was the reality."

Gerhard Weide, 44, a cook in a nearby cafeteria, said he didn't like Lenin, but the statue is the only bit of color in an otherwise drab square of faceless apartment blocks.

"Maybe they can give us a new statue," Mr. Weide said. "Something friendlier.

"Then I'd agree with his removal," he said.

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