Karl Marx is long dead, but his specter still haunts Europe.
The author of the Communist Manifesto, whose statues were torn down across the former East Bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is again at the center of clashing world views.
The reason: An 18-foot-tall Marx statue in his hometown of Trier, a gift from the Chinese government, is set to be unveiled Saturday, the bicentennial of his birth.
On the eve of the ceremony, some foes of communism—among them former Czech President Vaclav Klaus —walked the cobble-stoned streets and shook their heads in disbelief at banners reading “We are Marx.”
The statue stood wrapped on the eve of the unveiling. Its presence, Mr. Klaus said, “makes a mockery of history, of the victims of regimes that emerged based on Marx’s teaching.”
Mr. Klaus was particularly incensed about the participation of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the events surrounding the unveiling. “This shows that the EU is turning into a Marxist project,” said Mr. Klaus, a onetime anticommunist activist.
Four U.S. congressmen, co-chairs of the Victims of Communism Caucus, wrote this week to Mr. Juncker, urging him not to appear or speak at the Marx festivities. They described the statue as a direct insult to the millions of Europeans who suffered under Marxist dictatorships.
“Marxist regimes are responsible for murdering at least 100 million lives: 65 million in China; over 20 million in the Soviet Union; and over 2 million in North Korea,” the letter stated.
Mr. Juncker, a native of neighboring Luxembourg and an honorary citizen of Trier, rejected the criticism and said the German philosopher wasn’t responsible for the horrors committed long after his death in 1883.
Speaking on Friday in a Trier church built during the Roman Empire, Mr. Juncker described Marx as a critic of social inequalities. Mr. Juncker said he shared Marx’s view that “blind, unconditional capitalism” can be a “plague” when it doesn’t take into account human individuals.
He said the city of Trier was right to memorialize Marx, because he is part of Europe’s history.
Erecting the Chinese statue in the center of Trier, close to its main attraction, a large Roman city gate, sparked controversy. Some complained it would attract a flood of Chinese tourists, while others counted on exactly that.
A Chinese couple posing in front of the Roman gate on Friday said they were sad to miss the inauguration and disappointed that the statue was still wrapped. “We’re here just for the afternoon. We didn’t time it right,” the man said.
“I find it a bit sad that tourists come all the way from China just to see a statue made in China,” said 69-year-old Joachim Zils, a local street portrait artist.
The Marx connection has made Trier an attraction for Chinese tourists in recent years. The house where he was born has been turned into a museum. The house where he grew up is now the location of a discount store called “EuroShop.”
Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe said the statue wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago. “Today, with more distance from the socialism practiced in East Germany, it’s the right time to deal with Marx in this form,” Mr. Leibe said last month.
Winfried Speitkamp, a history professor and expert on political monuments, said the Marx statue was unusual in its form and what he called “oddness.”
“It seems to have fallen out of time for being so oversized and turning him into a hero,” Mr. Speitkamp said. “But it’s a town visited by many tourists and Trier had to ask itself whether they could turn down such a gift.”
Some others criticized the Chinese donation, including Ralf Nestmeyer, the vice president of the German unit of PEN International.
“Marx saw press freedom as an expression of a liberal democratic form of society,” Mr. Nestmeyer said. “Paradoxically, this freedom has been extremely limited in China for years.”