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Metropolis of Tschakos: Take a tour of Karl Marx’s Berlin

We take a tour of the Berlin that Karl Marx knew, from his drunken brawls to his favourite library.

Two decades after he left Germany, Marx expressed little nostalgia for Berlin. Writing to his cousin, he remembered “ennui that reigns supreme at that place”. For him, Berlin was a “metropolis of tschakos (police helmets) without heads”.

But even if he didn’t remember the city fondly, the city remembers him. Take a tour of Marx’s Berlin, from the street where he was cautioned for drunkenness, to the inn where he recovered from tuberculosis.

1. Humboldt University, Unter den Linden 6

Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University) in 1850, lithograph, Albert Henry Payne

The Friedrich Wilhelm University opened in 1809. Marx arrived here in 1836. After two semesters studying law and partying in Bonn, his father demanded he take things more seriously and move to the capital. The 18-year-old Marx spent five days on a mail coach to reach Berlin.

Marx arrived in a rapidly modernising city. Sidewalks were being installed and gas lanterns lit up the main streets. Berlin had grown to over a quarter of a million inhabitants and was teeming with bars and dance halls. Marx soon got a citation for “street excesses” i.e. drunk and disorderly, but that was not unusual for students at the time.

In Berlin, Marx dedicated himself to philosophy, in particular the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. After Hegel’s death, his supporters split into two groups: the conservative Old Hegelians, and the radical Young Hegelians – Marx naturally joined the latter, but later claimed to have “turned Hegel on his head” by giving his dialectical philosophy a materialist foundation.

The Prussian capital was full of destitute people streaming in from the countryside, but the proletariat was only just developing. Berlin’s first industrial factory opened the year after Marx arrived by August Borsig. Within a few years, Marx would declare this new working class to be the fertile ground for human liberation.

Marx completed his studies in spring 1841. He sent his PhD thesis to the university in Jena — apparently it was less conservative there — and that is where he received the title Dr. Marx.

In 1949, the school, now in the Eastern half of a divided city, was renamed Humboldt University. Since 1953, a Marx quote in golden letters has dominated the foyer: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

2. Bebelplatz 2

Royal Library The main reading room in 1901

While living in Berlin, Marx studied at the Royal Library opposite the university. The building, completed in 1780, was popularly known as the “Kommode”. Apparently Friedrich II, when asked by the architect what design he would prefer, pointed at his dresser and said: “Make it look like that box and leave me in peace.” As a sign of progress, the library was open to students and not just the aristocracy. Marx studied the texts of classical philosophy there.

More than half a century after Marx’s time in Berlin, a big fan of his from Russia visited the same library: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, stuided Marx’s work here in 1895. Lenin signed his library card with his temporary address at Flensburger Straße 12 in Moabit.

The library was handed over to the university in 1910, and has since housed the Law Faculty. The library was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by 1968. Since then, a stained glass window depicting Lenin has hung above the entrance. In fact, the window contains many Lenins. The biggest one, wearing a sharp red suit, points forward, with Marx and Engels in the background. Smaller Lenins are studying books, engaged in discussions with workers, and marching in demonstrations. At night, the design can be seen clearly from outside.

On May 10, 1933, the Nazis burned 25,000 books in a giant bonfire. The square in front of the library was then called Opernplatz. The writings of Marx, both a communist and a Jew, were the most high-profile “un-German” works. Today, a monument called the Empty Library is visible through windows in the ground on the square (now called Bebelplatz).

3. Luisenstraße 60

Luisenstraße 60 Where Marx lived from 1838-39

Marx lived at at least seven different addresses in Berlin – all within a few minutes of the university – but only one building remains: Luisenstraße 60 (formerly 45). The building had just been completed when Marx moved into a ground-floor apartment in October 1838. He stayed there for half a year.

This was an important time for Marx. In 1837, he became officially engaged to Jenny von Westphalen from his home town of Trier. They had become fiancés in secret just before Marx left. They would marry seven years later, and remained a team throughout decades of exile across Europe. Marx lost his father in 1838, leaving him without financial support for his lifestyle of writing books and drinking wine.

Today, the building stands opposite the 21-story “Bettenhaus” (“bed house” or “bed tower”) of the Charité hospital. The small square separating the buildings has been the site of numerous strikes by nurses and service workers in recent years. Marx would approve.

A plaque used to recall the presence of Marx, “the greatest son of the German people and the founder of scientific socialism,” but it disappeared around 1990. Berlin’s Culture Senate rejected a replacement marking the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth in 2018 after the Historischer Beirat (Historical Advisory Committee) failed to support the proposal.

4. Alt-Stralau 18

In 1837, Marx spent the summer in Alt-Stralau. His doctors advised him to go to what was then a fishing village outside of Berlin to recover from tuberculosis. Marx stayed at the inn of Gottlieb Köhler on Dorfstraße (today called Alt-Stralau). This is where Marx gathered strength to complete his dissertation. Today, the peninsula in the Spree, just beyond Ostkreuz, is full of new apartment buildings.

In 1964, East Berlin put up a monument here. There are two walls of red sandstone. One side features a portrait of Marx, the other has two reliefs.

One shows Marx, in a very tall top hat, leaning on the back of a chair, deep in conversation. Opposite there’s a scene depicting a strike by bottle makers in 1901 with the workers facing down Prussian police. A sign informs us the workers were inspired by Marx and Engels, and the national strike was led in Stralau, though the connection is tenuous. The axis of the Marx memorial leads the eye to Treptower Park and the Soviet War Memorial.

5. Charlottenstraße 53/54, Gendarmenmarkt

At a corner of Gendarmenmarkt, behind the arches of a covered sidewalk, there is a used book store: the Graphik-Antiquariat sells old maps and illustrations of the city. This was once the site of Café Stehely. At the time of Marx and Engels, Berlin had dozens of cafés. They were hotbeds of liberal ideas before the revolution of 1848, full of magazines and newspapers from around Europe. One Prussian king increased the tax on coffee because they were so subversive.

Café Stehely was a meeting place for actors, writers, and Berlin’s most important discussion circle. The Doktorenklub (Doctor’s Club) was a regular get-together to discuss the big questions of philosophy over drinks – the name was because the members tended to have PhDs. The café attracted Karl Marx and also Friedrich Engels – though they never met during the short time they were in the city together.

Nathaniel has written an anticapitalist Berlin guide book that is being published by Pluto Press in April.