It's easy to understand why Germany's oldest city attracts so many tourists. After all, Trier, a former capital of the Roman Empire, is home to the largest number of Roman ruins outside Rome, while the surrounding vineyards produce some of the country’s finest wines.
But for the roughly 150,000 Chinese who visit every year – more than any other German destination – Trier’s legacy as the birthplace of Karl Marx is the main draw. Renowned as the father of socialism, Marx believed that the struggle between the ruling classes and oppressed classes was fuelled by the private ownership of goods and services – essentially capitalism. He argued that transferring the administration of goods and services from individuals to the government would free society from class oppression.
Marx’s work is the guiding ideology of the People’s Republic of China, and he is regarded by many Chinese as a hero. Recently, President Xi Jinping declared: “If we deviate from or abandon Marxism, our party would lose its soul and direction.”
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Trier’s popularity with Chinese travellers has been a learning curve for the city's retailers, whose shops are filled with an eclectic range of memorabilia, from Marx-shaped cookie cutters to piggy banks shaped like his head. Many retailers signed up for the etiquette training offered by the Trier Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where they were advised against wrapping souvenirs in white paper – the colour of Chinese funereal robes – and to avoid any references to the number 250, slang for ‘stupid’ in Chinese. In honour of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth in 2018, zero Euro notes emblazoned with the philosopher's face (printed on the same paper as viable Euros and featuring the same watermarks) have been printed by the thousands and are available to purchase as souvenirs.
But the human rights abuses that have taken place in communist nations, including China, have made Marx a controversial figure. In Germany, he is reviled by many, particularly former residents of East Germany who were once subject to communist rule.
He's not responsible for what people made of his ideas
Alexander Schumitz, who heads up Trier tourism board's marketing efforts, admits the decision to embrace the city’s status as Marx's birthplace is a recent one. "Most people agree that Marx was an important philosopher," he told me. "He's not responsible for what people made of his ideas. It's true that Trier ignored Marx for almost 200 years, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most residents accepted Marx as a famous son of the city."
When the Chinese government announced its intentions to present Trier with a statue of Marx to honour the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, the city accepted, but a representative dispatched to China had the unenviable job of persuading the artist to downsize the monument. They did so by suggesting the height of 5.5m including the base (it was originally going to be 6.4m) would offer a nod to his birth date: 5 May 1818.
The new statue is one of several must-sees for anyone paying a Marx-themed visit to Trier, located just a 20-minute drive from the Germany-Luxembourg border. Another is the traffic lights at the end of Fleischstraße in the city centre, which display red and green caricatures of Marx. Several museums have unveiled temporary exhibitions to mark the anniversary, although it is the Karl Marx House, a gabled museum on Brückenstraße, that attracts most visitors. This is where he was born.
The museum houses a famous bust of Marx sculpted by his great-grandson. Elsewhere, there's a rare first edition of Das Kapital, Marx's seminal work, and a photo of Hua Guofeng, Chairman Mao's successor, visiting the museum. Outside, a garden blooms with flowers that once reminded Marx of his favourite places, including London's Hampstead Heath.
Although many of the temporary exhibitions will soon close, it won't be long before this controversial system of social organisation will boost Trier's visitor numbers once more – plans are already afoot for events to mark the 200th anniversary, in 2020, of the birth of Friedrich Engels, who edited Das Kapital and co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Marx.
Marx will always be a divisive figure, but the decision to recognise him as a son of the city is one Schumitz says wasn’t difficult. “He’s one of the most important philosophers of the 19th Century,” he said. “His theories are still discussed today, and still influence politics today. And he’s important for the city because his ideas are based on the experiences he had in Trier.”
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