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EU chief defends Marx in controversial speech to mark communist's birth

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivering a on Karl Marx in Germany today (Reuters)

The founding father of communism and the conservative former leader of a tax haven could barely be further apart politically.

Which is why there has been so much surprise – and indeed controversy – over the decision of Jean-Claude Juncker, the ex-Prime Minister of Luxembourg and current European Commission President, to speak at an event to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx.

Members of the US Congress and MEPs from formerly communist-ruled eastern Europe appealed  for Mr Juncker to pull out of the commemoration in Trier, the German town where Marx was born on May 5, 1818.

But their protests didn’t persuade Mr Juncker, who today went ahead with his speech at the opening ceremony of a new exhibition on the personal life and political works of Marx.

Mr Juncker described Marx as a “philosopher who thought into the future had creative aspirations” and addressed criticism of his legacy.

“Today he stands for things, which is he not responsible for and which he didn’t cause, because many of the things he wrote down were redrafted into the opposite,” he told an audience of a few hundred people in a local church.

“One has to understand Karl Marx from the context of his time and not have prejudices based on the review.”

Turning to Marx’s influence on modern politics, Mr Juncker said it was the “task of our time” to improve social rights.

“The European Union is not a flawed, but an unstable construction,” he said.

“Unstable also because Europe’s social dimension until today remains the poor relation of the European integration. We have to change this.”

Mr Juncker was also keen to stress that Marx was “lucky in life as he was born in Trier.”

Marx’s birthplace is situated on the border with Luxembourg and Mr Juncker was made an honorary citizen of the town during his 18 years in charge of the Grand Duchy.

An 18 foot tall statue of Karl Marx gifted to the town of Trier by China (Getty)

That was the reason behind his invitation by Malu Dreyer, the social democrat leader of the Rhineland-Palatinate region, according to a spokesperson for the Commission president.

The geographic rather than political reasoning for his participation in a programme of events which also includes the unveiling of an 18-foot-tall statue of Marx (a gift from China) didn’t placate critics of the decision.

Three US Congress members wrote Mr Juncker this week, imploring him to pull out of the event.

“Violence and Marxism go hand in hand,” they said in a letter send on behalf of the Victims of Communism foundation.

“Marx’s defenders often say he cannot be held accountable for what communist regimes did long after his life and death; but Marxist dictators who massacred their own people were applying communist ideology to political practice,”

There have also been protests from EU member states formerly ruled by communists.

MEPs from Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, which remains part of the same centre-right political group as Mr Juncker despite an increasingly strained relationship, protested against his decision yesterday.

“Marxist ideology led to the death of tens of millions and ruined the lives of hundreds of millions,” they wrote. “The celebration of its founder is a mockery of their memory.”

A European Commission spokesperson made a statement in anticipation of such criticism when Mr Juncker’s attendance was confirmed last week.

“After decades of experience in politics at a national and European level, president Juncker is very well aware of the historical facts and sensitivities,” she said.

“Whatever peoples’ views on Karl Marx are, I think that nobody can deny that Karl Marx is a figure who shaped history in one way or the other.

“Not speaking about his would come close to denying history.”

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