precedent: Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht // Revolutionsdenkmal

Title: Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and and Karl Liebknecht

Author: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Location: Berlin, Germany

Year complete: 1926, destroyed 1933

Elevation

In 1926, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was commissioned by communist art historian and collector Eduard Fuchs to build a monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two Marxist revolutionaries murdered by right-wing reactionary militias following the Spartacist Uprising. As the November Revolution ended both the First World War and the German Empire, the discontinuity of power led a polarized population to struggle over the successive form of government. The early days of the Weimar Republic were marked by civil unrest and violent clashes between left and right.

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For many years Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been organizing to mobilize the working class, hoping to achieve a proletarian revolution. Their publication Rote Fahne (“Red Flag”) published ideas strongly opposing capitalism, imperialism and militarism, and promoting a socialist ideology. The Spartacus League, a group that Luxemburg and Liebknecht had formed in 1916, broke from the established working class party after the war to become a nation-wide, politically independent communist party once the Social Democrats assumed power. In place of the new federal republic, their goal was to achieve a Räterepublik – a republic constituted of workers councils – in order to realize the social ideal of a decentralized, direct democracy.

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“Socialism or barbarism!” Luxemburg’s unapologetic declaration possibly inspired Mies’ material choices: the jagged brick at once demonstrates the “brutal honesty” and “raw severity” of the class struggle, of the aggressive political climate, the precariousness of the young democracy, the violent civilian clashes and, finally, the brutal execution of these progressive activists. Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial, also known as the Revolutionsdenkmal, honors the lives of the martyrs of the failed revolution, in particular those of the headstrong leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Many of their revolutionary contemporaries were executed in front of brick walls, which Mies’s design evokes. The Memorial stands 20 ft tall, built from the bricks of buildings destroyed in the Spartacist Unprising.

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The commission strikes us as an unusually political one for the prolific architect known for this political reserve, the Miesian silence. Though the memorial attempts to symbolically attach itself to the cause it commemorates, the abstract form seems to represent an apolitical modernist exercise rather than proposing a culture of remembrance for a radical social project and its fallen heroes.

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The hyper-specific German term Mahnmal, which has been applied the this commemmorative work, indicates the ominous character of the memorial, which warns against the repeatability of history and the sacrifices of progress.

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