[Many thanks to Heinz Birch, former German Democratic Republic (GDR) Charge d’Affaires, for kindly allowing us to translate and republish this extract from his autobiography Wiedersehen, ich gehe in die Fremde : Streben für eine bessere Welt (2017) on this website about his role in unveiling the original Engels plaque in Eastbourne in 1976]
At this point I would like to mention a recreational place on the coast of Great Britain that Friedrich Engels once chose for days of recreation. He spent several holidays in Eastbourne. This place apparently exerted a special attraction on him.
The place in which Engels lived during his stays on the coast was a popular weekend destination for members of the Embassy. The consequence of this was that the East German diplomats entertained good relations with the trade unions in Eastbourne.
At some point a thought matured to remember and commemorate Fredrich Engels at this historic place with a memorial plaque. The festive unveiling of the plaque took place in May 1976. Because Karl Heinz Kern was on holiday during this time I as his deputy conducted this ceremonial act in the name of the DDR and in the presence of the mayor. The Tory – member of the Conservative Party – insisted on inviting us and other guests to a reception in the town hall and afterwards to a concert in the theatre of the town.
This mayor not only possessed an awareness of history but also proved to have courage because for, the enemies of progress, the commemoration of Friedrich Engels, the loyal companion of Karl Marx was a thorn in their side. When we unveiled the plaque ceremoniously, there were supporters of the National Party [Front] – the neo-fascists – standing on the other side of the road with flags and posters and they were trying to disturb the event with their shouting and smearing. But success was denied to them. Under the strict supervision of the local police they were held behind a pen erected specially for them.
After the unveiling of the plaque we visited the place on the steep coast from which Friedrich Engels ashes were given to the tumultuous sea according to his final will. We were fortunately amongst ourselves. It was an elevating feeling to think back to this 27 September [August] 1895 on which one of the great thinkers of the international working class found his final resting place off the coast of Beachy Head in the presence of Eleanor Aveling, Karl Marx’s daughter.
Edited to add – letter in Sussex Bylines from Sheila Taylor
Engels’ plaque campaign
Carol Mills’ Engels in Eastbourne article, mentioning the original plaque to Engels, aroused memories for me too, as I helped to organise the unveiling event. I was Secretary of the Britain-GDR Society at the time and was invited by the local organisers to give the commemorative speech at Beachy Head. A dramatic location for a public speech! On the clifftops above the sea clutching my typed script, I read out the history of Engels in Eastbourne, glancing up from time to time at Heinz Birch’s encouraging smile in the front row. A Guardian journalist had spotted this highly unusual event and wrote it up as a feature article, gleefully mocking our little gathering of naïve idealists. The East Germans and I were all very sad when right-wing vandals forced the plaque to be removed. I’d be delighted if it could be reinstated! It would be fun to be in touch.
Secretary, The Britain-GDR Society (1976-80)
Edited to add again – many thanks to Sheila Taylor for providing a copy of her speech on the day – see scans below