25 years after Berlin Wall fell, Lenin's image still divides

SCHWERIN, Germany - In the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, historian Ralf Wendt has watched much of his former life vanish.

The museum he curated that tells Schwerin's 1,000-year history was a national treasure in communist East Germany. But once East Germany merged with West Germany, it was just an unprofitable remnant and its once-admired exhibits were hauled off to storage.

Change came elsewhere too. The public art that this East German provincial capital had proudly displayed during 40 years of socialism was deemed uninteresting to a capitalist world. Piece by piece, it was removed and hidden away. In one case, a school janitor decided on his own to take down and bury a statue of Karl Marx, the German father of socialism.

Now Wendt is watching with chagrin as the one of the last markers of the East German era comes under attack: a towering memorial to the founder of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin, that stands on a small residential square. It may be the last of its kind in Western Europe. A growing movement wants it torn down.

"In this modern world, we are told Lenin plays no role," he said. "But we cannot totally ignore our history. The monument is a document. It says who he was, and that says something about who we were - and are. I don't understand the need to tear it down or cover it."

Since the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Lenin statues have been dragged or beaten down in former Soviet states and satellites from Armenia to Romania.

In Berlin, a famous Lenin in granite was hauled away and buried. The burial site is unmarked - to discourage devotees from creating a memorial at the site, in much the same way German authorities refused for decades to mark the spot where Adolf Hitler killed himself. His death spot, now an apartment complex parking lot, merits a multilingual plaque today.

All of which lends an air of significance to the discussion in what used to be near the northwestern tip of East Germany of what to do with Schwerin's Lenin.

The debate, which began years ago, has included everything from splashing paint on the statue to letter-to-the-editor battles in the local newspaper. On June 17, former East German resident Alexander Bauersfeld organized a protest and covered Lenin's head with a bed sheet to look somewhat like a hangman's hood.

Bauersfeld's reasons for the protest: the continued existence of the statue causes him serious pain. The East German government arrested and imprisoned him as a political dissident. He says honoring the man at the heart of the Soviet empire - he describes Lenin as "one the worst tyrants of the 20th century" - is simply wrong. In June 1953, when Soviet tanks crushed a popular uprising in East Germany, many carried images of Lenin, he points out.

"Our campaign is long overdue," he said. "The Lenin statue has to go."

Schwerin Mayor Angelika Gramkow has taken considerable heat for fighting to keep the statue standing. A member of the socialist left, she thinks it's important to remember the past.

She notes that her city is home to one of the last remaining Lenin statues in Western Europe, and one of the few left in the former Soviet satellites.

"It was a disaster to remove almost all statues and rename most streets that reminded us of our East German past after the fall of the wall," she said. "We Germans tend to remove signs of the past at the end of every historic period. We think our responsibility is done when we remove the symbols. We forget that in their absence, public discussion of the past is no longer possible."

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