‘Trier hates you,’ reads the graffiti outside the Karl-Marx-Wohnhaus in Trier. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. Trier doesn’t hate Marx, but it’s always had mixed feelings about its most famous son. Marx’s 200th birthday will be marked by several lavish exhibitions in Trier, which is ironic, for this quaint Rhineland city has never known quite what to make of the author of Das Kapital.
Marx was born in Trier on 5 May 1818, in a handsome house on the edge of the medieval old town that now houses the Karl Marx Museum. His father was a lawyer, his family were fairly well-to-do. When he was still a baby, they moved to the Karl-Marx-Wohnhaus in the city centre (now a drab convenience store) beside the Porta Nigra, a huge Roman gatehouse. Trier was one of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire. Relics of that époque are strewn all over town.
Marx lived here until his late teens, when he went away to university. He met his wife Jenny here and made his first forays into journalism. Like a lot of clever, subversive teenagers, he became heartily sick of his hometown, but in fact it was the perfect kindergarten for the father of communism. After the French Revolution, Trier became part of the French Republic. After Napoleon was ousted, it became part of Prussia. Consequently, Marx grew up in a city with a split personality, torn between its autocratic rulers and its democratic roots.
The history of the Karl Marx Museum reflects Marx’s shifting status. After his death, in 1883, his birthplace was forgotten and neglected. In 1928, it was bought by Germany’s Social Democratic Party and turned into a museum. In 1933 the Nazis trashed the museum and turned it into the offices of the local party newspaper.