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 seemed to me 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. …
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.