Few tourists bother with the old East German cities beyond Berlin. But not Globe Trotsky. While many of the old Communist-era symbols were removed following reunification, a few iconic monuments still remain for those willing to seek them out. Chemnitz in Southwest Germany is one of the destinations worth ‘heading’ to.

Big-headed on Brutalism

Globe Trotsky in front of the stylized bronze head of Karl Marx in Chemnitz.

A cold, short, winter day in the small German City of Chemnitz, is not everyone’s idea of a tourist day out.

But with a fascination for socialist realist sculpture and brutalist architecture, I had been salivating ahead of this trip for a several years.

Around an hour’s bus ride from my Dresden base, the town of Chemnitz has a fairly unremarkable reputation.

Little Manchester

Situated at the foot of the Erzgebirge (literally translated as “ore mountains”) it became an important area of industrial production.

Such was its growth, which included coal mining and as machinery centre, it was christened Little Manchester in the 1700s.

Allied Destruction

Fast forward to the 20th century and the Second World War and this made Chemnitz a prime target for the Allied bombers.

So much so that the city was obliterated during the conflict to disrupt the Nazi war effort. By 1945 it was completely destroyed.

Reinventing the City

The brone bust was made by Soviet sculptor Lev Kerbel in Leningrad

It was rebuilt under the new communist government of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). And In 1953 it was renamed Karl-Marx Stadt.

Incongruous, as Marx – who hailed from Trier on the opposite side of Germany near the French border – had never visited the city and had no obvious connection with the place!

Bronze Bust Brutalism

After renaming, the East German government commissioned the famous Soviet sculptor, Lev Kerbel, to design a new monument featuring the fathering of communism, Karl Marx, for its newly-named city.  

Socialist Realist sculptor, Lev Kerbel at work on the monument masterpiece in Leningrad

The bronze monument of Karl Marx was cast by Kerbel in Leningrad and then broken down in to 95 pieces. (Soviet technology and welding techniques were deemed not up to the job and the brought to Germany to be reassembled.)

Imposing burst of Karl Marx and wall frieze words: “Workers of the World Unite” in Brukenstrasse, Chemitz, Germany.

Socalist Realism

Finally, on the 9 October 1971, the monument was unveiled by Communist Party General Secretary Erich Honecker in front of a crowd of 250,000 East Germans and party members.

East German leader unveiling the Mark Monument in 1971

I had seen images of the statue before, but nothing prepared me for the sheer scale of this masterpiece of Socialist Realism. The head itself is just under 25 feet in height. Together with the plinth, the brutalist bust stands at 42 feet high and weighs 40 tonnes. For anyone with socialist bone in their body it truly is magic moment to walk beneath this giant of political and economic history.

Monumental Manifesto

Set in the wall behind is the political rally cry: “Workers of the World Unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”. The inscription, quoted from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, is written in four languages: German, English, French and Russian.

Head shot of Karl Marx and wall frieze words, Workers of the World Unite.

As the landmark of the city, it served during holidays in the German Democratic Republic as a backdrop for party pageants and other mass events.

The Marx bust was a regular centrepiece for Communist Party mass events and pageants.

Skull Alley

Until 2007, the motto of the city was “Stadt mit Köpfchen” (the city with heads/brains), referring to the monument. And locals still refer to the road as Nischelgasse or “Skull Alley”, not Brückenstrasse, its proper street name.

Globe Trotsky in retro DDR top in front of the famous stylized bronze head of Karl Marx in Chemnitz.

The Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz is believed to be the second largest bust in the world behind on of Lenin’s head in Ulan-Ude, Russia, which is six centimetres taller.

Bust of Lenin’s head in Ulan-Ude, Russia is 60 cm taller than Marx in Chemnitz.

Using Brains

Like most Communist-era symbols there was intense debate about its future following “de Wende” (the Turn) as Germans call reunification. And despite the city reverting to its original name of Chemnitz from Karl Marx Stadt in 1991, locals have decided to retain this amazing monument as an important part of the city’s identity.

It takes brain to do that. Globe Trotsky for one is pleased he got the chance to see it.

My DDR tracksuit top was purchased from Copa who sell a wide range of retro football strips.

Getting there

The Marx Monument sits on public land and is free to visit and photograph. It stands on the side of the road close to the city centre. Globe Trotsky travalled by bus from Dresden and it cost around £15 return and takes around an hour on Flixbus.

By train

Chemnitz, as part of the Sachsen-Franken-Magistrale (train route connecting Saxony and Franconia), can be easily accessed by train from several of the other cities in Saxony but also from Bavaria.

  • Leipzig (connections every hour, travelling time is about 1 hour)
  • Dresden and Zwickau (mostly 2 connections every hour)
  • Nuremberg via Hof (once every hour)
  • Elsterwerda (every hour)

Chemnitz is well linked within the German railway system which is widely regarded as the most developed rail network in the world. Visit Deutsche Bahn for more information.

By plane

Chemnitz doesn’t have its own airport anymore. The nearest airports are:

  • Dresden (80km) Especially Lufthansa, Germanwings and during sumer flights to many destinations in Southern Europe and Northern Africa
  • Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) (100km) Flights to Russia and France
  • Leipzig-Halle (117km) Wide range of operators including Lufthansa, Germanwings and many more
  • Erfurt (165km) Mainly Lufthansa
  • Berlin Schoenefeld Airport (240km) Large International Airport
  • A private airfield for business and small private charter can be found in Chemnitz-Jahnsdorf 12km away.

The airports in Dresden and Leipzig both have their own train stations and can comfortably be reached with one stop over in either Dresden Main Station (Hbf) or Leipzig Main Station (Hbf).

By car

Chemnitz is situated at the junction of the motorways A4 and A72.

  • Dresden A4, travelling time is about 45mins
  • Leipzig A72 and B95, 1h30mins
  • Weimar and Erfurt A4, 1h45mins
  • Berlin A4 towards Dresden, then A13, 2h45mins
  • Nuremburg A72 towards Hof, then A9, 2h45mins
  • Prague either A4 towards Dresden and then A17 or B174 towards Marienberg, both about 3hours
  • Munich A72 towards Hof, then A93, 4h45mins
By bus

The bus station, called “Omnibusbahnhof”, is next to the Chemnitz Main Station about 3 minutes by foot. There are some national and international long distance connections mainly operated by FlixBus.

  • Berlin 5 times daily via Berlin Südkreuz and Berlin Schoenefeld Airport in 2,5 – 3,5 hours
  • Hamburg once a day from Thursday to Monday in 7.5 hours
  • Prague once a day from Thursday to Monday in about 3 hours
  • Kraków once a day in 8.5 hours
  • Amsterdam once a day in about 11 hours

There is also a direct connection from Kiev but the bus stops at Chemnitz-Center. Wednesday to Sunday in about 25 hours.

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