Offering statues as gifts to other nations has long been a subtle way of extending politics into the realm of arts. New York's Statue of Liberty, for instance, was funded by France to celebrate freedom and enlightenment.
But a similar gift from China is now putting Germans in a rather awkward position. The influential German trading partner wants to buy the town of Trier a statue of Karl Marx to honor him as one of the co-authors of the Communist Manifesto, a political text written with Friedrich Engels in 1848. Another German town accepted a similar offer two years ago.
To some in Trier, the gift is a welcome expression of Chinese-German partnership. To others, however, the free Karl Marx is a provocation, given that Eastern Germany's own communist experiment resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people who tried to flee from the communist east into the west before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. They also think accepting such a gift from China, which is frequently criticized for violating human rights, would send the wrong message at a time when Western liberalism is under attack by right-wing populists and authoritarian regimes.
The council of Trier accepted the gift Monday evening, paving the way for a permanent bronze statue, erected in the city center ahead of the philosopher's birthday 200 years ago in May next year.
It is a decision that is likely to surprise those who witnessed the early days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Across Eastern Europe, statues of communist heroes such as Marx and Vladimir Lenin were toppled during the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. In 2014, during the Ukraine conflict, more than 200 remaining Lenin statues were destroyed within days in an expression of anger toward the Kremlin.
Although Lenin statues have long been hard to find in Germany, a number of Marx monuments continue to surprise visitors in cities such as Berlin and Chemnitz in east Germany. The latter used to be called "Karl Marx City" until one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when officials decided it was time for Marx to assume a more subtle role.
Chemnitz's Marx monument was not taken down, though, and it has once again become the city's landmark — its head alone being 23 feet tall. In Trier, the Marx monument will probably be much smaller.
City officials refrained from making a final decision on its height Monday evening, probably making it the city's next talking point. Some think that a tall statue standing on a plinth overlooking tourists and city residents would imply Marx's intellectual incontestability, whereas in reality his theories remain contentious in Germany. Critics want the Chinese statue of Marx to be of real-life height so that tourists can confront the communist theorist eye to eye.
"Take him down from the plinth," one resident told a German radio station. "I like that compromise -- [Marx being] on an equal footing [with everyone]."