Honestly, I was at first put off by the raw severity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund and martyrs of the failed November 1918 Revolution in Germany. The monumental structure — first erected in 1926, before being torn down by the Nazis less than a decade later — is almost proto-brutalist in its cantilevered slabs and brazen use of unrefined materials, made up of jagged bricks held together by unsanded grout organized around a steel-and-concrete frame. It just seemed too willfully barbaric to commemorate anything of value, so stark was its ugliness.
But as it turns out, this was precisely Mies’ intention. In a conversation with the prominent communist and cultural commentator Eduard Fuchs, Mies was reported to have said the following:
As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.
Though he’d later downplay its radical Bolshevik origins by recasting it in terms of a sorrowful republicanism, Mies would always emphasize that the building was meant to convey a certain brutal honesty. Even in his deeply apolitical American exile, this remained the case. As recalled at several decades’ remove, the monument did not aspire to beauty but to truth:
[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope — the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.
To his credit, Mies took seriously Luxemburg’s famous dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” (adapted from some lines by Engels written toward the end of his life). Luxemburg’s pronouncement of this opposition was not meant to be regarded as some sort of perennial choice haunting humanity throughout its existence, but rather was historically specific to her own moment, as Second International Marxism entered into profound crisis. Since socialism did not come to pass, as the world revolution stopped short, it is necessary that everything that transpired afterward be regarded as barbarism. For this reason, I’ve come to appreciate the self-conscious barbarism of Mies’ monument. There is something fitting about the unrelenting gnarliness of the brickwork in embodying Mies’ trademark perfect volumes, proportions, and harmonious distribution. Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.
Of course, it is well known that that Mies, the third Bauhaus director and one of the great pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, was never all that political to begin with. True to Tafuri’s by-now canonical interpretation of “Miesian silence,” the architect typically kept his mouth shut when it came to such affairs. Unlike Hannes Meyer, whose position as the rector of the Bauhaus he’d eventually usurp in 1930, he saw no inherent connection between politics and architecture.
Yet scholars such as Jean-Louis Cohen have pointed out that Mies, who at the time was known to occasionally refer to himself as “the Rhineland revolutionary,” had belonged to the Society of the Friends of New Russia in 1926. Here he joined fellow colleagues and countrymen like the famed Expressionist architects Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn. Even more explicitly, Mies demonstrated a surprising level of awareness when it came to revolutionary precedent, as he included in his sketch for the monument a banner with the inscription “Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein” [“I was, I am, I will be”], Rosa Luxemburg’s final written words before her execution by the proto-fascist Freikorps in January 1919. This, too, had recourse to revolutionary precedent, as Luxemburg was actually quoting a line from Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810-1876) written during the 1848 German revolution.
Whatever Mies’ later political affections, which varied infamously, the irony of his leftist leanings during this period was not lost on Hannes Meyer, Gropius’ successor as rector of the Bauhaus, when he was dismissed on charges of Marxist sympathies, to be replaced by none other than Mies. Before departing to work in the Soviet Union, the former bitterly wrote:
Herr Oberbürgermeister! It is now your intention to exorcise the spirit of Marxism from the Bauhaus I have so tainted. Morals, propriety, decency, and order are to be ushered in again on the arm of the Muses. As my successor you have allowed Mies van der Rohe to be imposed upon you, on the advice of Gropius and not — as the articles prescribe — on the advice of the Bauhaus masters. My colleague, poor fellow, is no doubt expected to take his pick-axe and demolish my work in pious memory of the Moholyian past of the Bauhaus. This infamous Marxism is to be fought, I suppose, with every weapon and thus the very life shaken out of the unsullied Bauhaus. Down with Marxism! And for this purpose who should you have chosen but Mies van der Rohe, who designed the memorial for Karl Liebkneckt and Red Rosie [Rosa Luxemburg]!
Meyer had a point.