On first glance, it might seem to a casual passer-by that the Karl-Marx Shop, in Neukölln, Berlin, is some kind of Ostalgie-related attempt to sell mugs and t-shirts to tourists. However, it’s actually a normal household and kitchen supplies shop, and it gets its name from the street it’s on: Karl-Marx-Strasse.
Streets named after Marx were familiar sights in East Germany during its forty-year existence, but this street is in what was formerly West Berlin, and so the name is somewhat more surprising. The street was given its current name in July 1947 — after the end of World War II in 1945, but prior to the establishment of East Germany in 1949.
Part of the logic of political life in divided Berlin was that East and West would attempt to outdo each other, not only in grand projects like the Haus der Kulturen der Welt or the Fernsehturm Berlin, but also in superficial gestures of supposed friendship and magnanimity. Therefore, from the perspective of the West Berlin political and diplomatic class, it made sense to keep a street named after Marx, as an implied token of willingness to rise above pettiness and acknowledge a hero of the ‘other side’ (this logic was often followed by the East Berlin authorities as well, though they mostly stuck to general themes of peace and friendship, rather than specific historical personages).
The historical ironies are compounded, however, by the reasons for the naming of Berlin’s other Marx-monikered boulevard, Karl-Marx-Allee in Friedrichshain, in former East Berlin. This street — planned, designed and built by the new East German state as a colossal symbol of communist power — was initially named Stalinallee, but was renamed in 1961 as a result of De-Stalinization.
Marx himself might well have been baffled by the appropriation of his memory as an ideological tool for competing social systems, but would surely have relished the irony of a local shop, a basic unit of bourgeois capitalism, using his name.