Berlin and Santa Comba Dão

Gummlin, from the series Das Denkmal. Sibylle Bergemann, 1984. Source here.
[Untitled]. Author unknown, 1975. Source here.
Any resemblance is purely coincidental. It is rather unlikely that Sibylle Bergemann (1941-2010) had the headless statue of Salazar (1889-1970) in mind when she aimed the lens of her camera at the plaster molds of Marx and Engels.
The picture on the left is named “Gummlin“, in a reference to the small settlement in the north of Germany where the artist Ludwig Engelhardt (1924-2001) sculpted what would become a famous Berliner monument. The photograph belongs to the series “Das Denkmal” (“The Monument”), that documents the several phases of the execution and installation of that monument, the Marx-Engels-Forum.
The image on the right is a photograph of exceptional quality taken by an unknown photographer, documenting an odd episode that marked the democratization process in Portugal.In addition to the visual similarity, these two images have a lot more in common to tell us, namely, the three dimensions upon which one can interpret public artwork: Memory, Identity and Action. But, even though they are paradigmatic of these three dimensions, the two monuments also prove the limitations of such classification.

[Monument to Salazar]. Author unknown, ca. 1970. Source here.
[Unveiling ceremony of the Monument to Salazar]. Author unknown, 1965. Source here.


Signed by the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida (1890-1975), the statue of António de Oliveira Salazar was erected in 1965 in Santa Comba Dão, in front of the local courthouse and next to the parish church. Although it was installed while Salazar was still the governing dictator of Portugal, the statue answers mainly to a posthumous logic. For being his birthplace, the small town was the ideal setting to edify a memorial to the Portuguese statesman, a kind of warranty to the memory of a man who was seen as the saviour of the fatherland and upon whom fell the entire merit of the national union – even if it had to be “proudly alone” in that merit. Hence, it doesn’t seem to be innocent, this sharp, formal reference to the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln,[1] the notable American president responsible for the union of the United States in a time of civil war. It seems evident that, for the Estado Novo regime, Santa Comba Dão would effectively work as its own kind of Lincoln Memorial, a pilgrimage site for the future generations of Portuguese proud of the great patriot. Curiously, the posthumous feeling of the sculpture would become rather ironic three years after it was unveiled, when an accidental fall from a chair marked the beginning of the end of this dictator.

[Installation of the statues of Marx and Engels]. From the series “Das Denkmal“. Sybille Bergemann, 1986. Source here.
It was this very same logic that motivated the installation of the sculptures of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in East Berlin in 1986. With the opening of the Marx-Engels-Forum, the state paid its respects to the founding intellectuals of the great economic utopia of the 20th century in the capital city of their native country – even though they were both born in what, back then, was known as West Germany. With the headquarters of the communist government of the GDR as their backdrop and facing the iconic TV Tower, the respected revolutionaries could now proudly admire the system that they idealised. It was a recognition of the importance of their contribution, and evidence that their forecast was right when they stated that Germany was ready for the revolution. The memorial logic of both monuments lacks no big explanation. One can only remark on the formal adequacy to the respective ideologies and politics of the honourees: while Salazar sits atop an unreachable granite plinth, Marx and Engels let themselves be touched on ground level, in a kind of tacit commitment to the proletariat. For being fatherly figures of their respective governing ideologies, both monuments express a strong identitarian character. But here things start to split asunder.

[Aerial view of the Marx-Engels-Forum]. Hubert Link, 1987. Source here.


More than a memorial, this Berliner monument is a symbol. Even though the statues of the two philosophers assume a highlighted position, the Marx-Engels-Forum is an ensemble that integrates several monuments in a wide circular space. The white marble reliefs “Old World”, by sculptor Werner Stötzer (1931-2010), are the only work of the group placed in an external position of that circle. It is to the “Old World” that Marx and Engels turn their backs. In contrast, the bronze reliefs “Everyday Life of a Free Society” and “The Dignity and Beauty of Free People”, by Margret Middell (1940-), man the front of the ensemble. Furthermore, describing a delicate curve through the middle of the circle, four photography panels document the history of the labour movements in Germany.

More than promoting the ideology, the Marx-Engels-Forum sought to express the idea that socialism was something historically German. More than being prescriptive, the ensemble was illustrative, promoting the acceptance of the regime as something intrinsic to the national identity. Even before they were the fathers of socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were German. In this scope, the homage delineates a mix between nationalism and socialism. It is in this hybrid of conflicting identities that these statues justly portray the problem of identity in Berlin.

The ensemble was erected in a context of loss of confidence in the regime. Few were the East Germans who believed in the ideology and the Berlin Wall was already showing signs of wanting to fall. Considering this context, the statues of Marx and Engels easily reveal themselves to be closer to a mythological allegory than to a strict mournful tribute, teachers taking time to review the material for a society becoming too lazy to even do its homework.

The group integrated an arboreal axis in the city centre and it was well-received by East Berliners who went there for family walks on sunny weekends and free afternoons. It must not have taken long for the sculptures to acquire their more familiar nickname: “the Pensioners”.[2]

Despite the obvious differences between their form and context, the symbolic approach of the monument to Salazar was, in regards to identity, similar to the one in Berlin. Following the common trend of adding famous quotes by those honoured onto monuments of commemoration, the one in Santa Comba Dão featured those quotes which best conveyed the imposing identity. “The ones that cease to fight are unworthy of living. But this won’t be said about us.” And the better known: “Everything for the nation. Nothing against the nation.” These are the statements that the photographs allow one to read more clearly. But an odd event would renovate the statue’s renown, at the same time refreshing its own identity discourse.

Along with the colonies, Portugal would also lose the head of its historical leader. In the morning of February 17th, 1975, the citizens awoke confronted with a headless statue. Apparently, it must have been through the course of several nights, “sawing some centimetres at a time”, that the monument was beheaded.[3] The mutilation of the sculpture caused a heated discussion in the town. If, on the one hand, Salazar ruled Portugal under a repressive and violent regime, on the other, he was for that no less a notable native and therefore a symbol of pride to some of the locals. Past the initial awe, the reaction of the vast majority of citizens came promptly: it was necessary to collect money in order to replace the head of their illustrious fellow citizen.

The incident concerning Salazar’s head clearly resumes the potential identity clash of public art. It is in threshold situations that identity is revealed. Probably, the statue was already suffering from the ills of invisibility that Robert Musil (1880-1942) warned us about.[4] The brass man, who before could only whisper, had to lose his head so that identity could speak louder. Within the event of the Salazar statue’s beheading, the concepts of identity and action start to intertwine.

[The monument to Salazar after the two anonymous actions]. Author unknown, 1978. Sources here and here.


One can argue whether the act of beheading a sculpture is or is not public art. Putting aside the subversive nature of the gesture, the existence of its poetic dimension is undeniable. For three years Salazar would remain headless for everyone to see, saluting whoever entered in the house of justice. But it didn’t take long before some mocking remarks were graffitied on the base of the sculpture. What used to be a respectful tribute became something more like a ‘punching bag’ for revolutionaries.

In 1978, after a new head was casted, the citizens announced the date of the ‘heading’ ceremony. The central government made public its opposition to such an event and called the police to prevent it from happening. After the citizens tried to install the head on the statue, the police seized it. “Such attitude ended up provoking a series of chain reactions that led to the confrontations.”[5] The violent turmoil that followed was only resumed some days later, when the statue was “destroyed by an explosive device that shattered it into pieces.”[6]

Never in the history of the peaceful town did the local pride so intensely suppress the national one. The experience of Santa Comba Dão duly summarizes the way in which collective identity can project itself onto heritage, simultaneously exposing the dangers it can bring.

[The monument to Marx and Engels after the anonymous action]. Author unknown, 1990. Source here.


While the memorial in Santa Comba Dão revealed its aptitude for being a “punching bag”, the one in Berlin tried to pour oil on troubled waters. After the fall of the wall that had divided the city for almost thirty years, the Berliners also felt a momentary destructive impetus – it was to this instinct that they resorted when they smashed the concrete barrier using little more than hammers. Still, a very different intervention also emerged from that impetus. In the summer of 1990 someone added the words “we are innocent” (“wir sind unschuldig“) to the front side of the platform upon which the statues stood. The simple addition of this sentence under the figures had the power to change the way one sees them; even the gaze of those represented seemed to change. If before Engels stood in a sign of reverence to the working class, now he seemed to be doing so in order to defend, also on behalf of Marx, their innocence.

Maybe it was due to the timely declaration of innocence that the statues were spared. Or maybe because the Berliners never felt threatened by their “Pensioners”. The truth is that, during the twenty years that followed, the great ideologists persistently remained in the same place, while the surrounding landscape gradually changed. With the end of the regime, the sculptures lost almost all of their prominence, obtaining just relative enthusiasm among the nostalgic tourists that were flying to Berlin in search of its socialist traces.

[Removal of the Marx-Engels-Forum]. Theo Helmann, 2010. Source here.


In September 2010, the Marx-Engels-Forum was dismantled in order to give way to the construction of a subway line. A crane raised the heavy figures in a trajectory of 100 metres, an event attended to by the press and a few other curious individuals. According to Spiegel Online,[7] the statues will only be able to retrieve their positions in 2017. But meanwhile, officials are already discussing the possibility of rebuilding the medieval quarter that stood there before the war, once the construction works are finished. This kind of uncertainty tells much about Berlin’s attitude towards its heritage.

[Monument to the Heroes of the Colonial War]. Carlos Silva, 2010. Source here.


It was also in 2010 that the – so far – last chapter of the Portuguese monument was written, a continuation of the transience exemplified by the unspectacular public fountain that was installed after Salazar’s statue was destroyed. This time, the place was dedicated to the memory of the Heroes of the Overseas War, a campaign much supported by the dictator. After a project of the Urban Planning Office of the local City Hall,[8] the inconspicuous fountain was then transformed to integrate the new monument: the six major stages of the Colonial War were represented, six triangular plans placed across the fountain, uniting in its centre on a large engraved stone where one can read the names of the sixteen soldiers who died in battle who had been locals of the town. The names appear under two of the most renowned verses of The Lusiads, Camões’ (1524-1580) opus magnum hailing the epic deeds of Portugal in the Age of Discoveries: “And those who for their worthy contributions / Are getting released from the rule of death.”[9] In Santa Comba Dão it’s still possible to perceive the continuity which would otherwise be mistaken as a rupture from the previous approach: it’s highly likely that Salazar would have resorted to those exact verses in order to motivate the people for his imperialistic war.

[1] The comparison is mentioned in SAIAL, Joaquim – Eça de Queirós, Salazar, José Lopes, Duarte Silva e o Dr. António Loreno. Available here (in Portuguese).
[2] WHYBROW, Nicolas – Street Scenes: Brecht, Benjamin & Berlin, Bristol: Intellect Books, 2005, p. 209.
[3] Mentioned in Dão Profundo [blog]. Available here (in Portuguese).
[4] MUSIL, Robert – Denkmale In Nachlass zu Lebzeiten. Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag. 1978. pp. 6-7.
[5] Mentioned in Dão Profundo [blog]. Available here (in Portuguese).
[6] Ibid. Available here (in Portuguese).
[7] Video report available here (in German).
[8] Mentioned in Dos Veteranos da Guerra do Ultramar [site]. Available here (in Portuguese).
[9] Free translation of “E aqueles que por obras valerosas / se vão da lei da morte libertando.” In CAMÕES, Luís Vaz de – Os Lusíadas. First published in 1572.

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