Iconoclastic? Totalitarian? Germany Tries To Erase Its Past By Renaming Its Streets

Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg
Alan Posener


BERLIN - Some people live with the past. Others prefer to throw the past away like it’s smelly trash. In present-day Germany, where the goody-two-shoes live, the second has been the preferred option for a long time now. Take for instance street names: Germany’s streets and squares are routinely re-baptized.

When the Nazis came to power, they got rid of Friedrich-Ebert-Platz and Phillip-Scheidemann-Straße, named after the Social Democratic politicians who respectively became first president and 10th chancellor of Germany. Who wanted to be reminded of the founders of a hated Republic – the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Germany’s first after the fall of the monarchy? To Nazis, Adolf-Hitler-Straße sounded a lot better.

Twelve years later, the Nazis were out – and of course by then, no one could remember ever having been a Nazi. In the West, Ebert and Scheidemann were back in fashion. One had after all always been for the Republic. In East Germany, the heroes were Karl Marx or Joseph Stalin, Ernst Thälmann (1886-1944, leader of the German Communist Party during the Weimer Republic) or Walter Ulbricht, leader of East Germany from 1950 through the early 1970s.

Ulbricht and Stalin were out soon enough. Stalinist? Never! And Ulbricht was always a little suspicious, wasn’t he. After the reunification – although “it wasn’t all bad” in East Germany, and Marx, also Thälmann, were okay -- the other heroes of the Socialist pantheon slid into oblivion along with whatever statuary had previously adorned public spaces.

If things had stayed there – erasing traces of the representatives of erroneous past paths – there wouldn’t be a lot to say against the country’s street re-naming habit. But Germans are known for their thoroughness. And so now, historical figures that do not meet the 21st century goody-two-shoes standard are being thrown onto the bonfire of history.

Erasing history’s mistakes

The Münster city council recently decided to re-baptize a square located between the city and its famous Baroque palace. Since 1927 this square has (uninterruptedly) been called Hindenburgplatz, after Paul von Hindenburg who served as Germany’s second President from 1925 to 1934. The beef against Hindenburg is that he was a militarist, having served as head of the army during the First World War.

Now as everybody knows we Germans are fervent anti-militarists. But we can and should hold against Hindenburg that, when he was German president, he appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor (even if he despised Hitler, and a bizarre set of contingencies led to the appointment: however, he did suspend various civil liberties after Hitler’s appointment, and signed the Enabling Act).

Nevertheless we should not forget that Hindenburg’s victory at Tannenberg in 1914 stopped the advance of the Tsarist army, which has won him lasting and justified gratefulness in Germany. Long story short: the man, like so many politicians, at least in Germany, is hardly the proverbial shining light – but he’s also very far from having no merit whatsoever.

And he’s so much a part of German history, together with a kind of Hindenburg euphoria that prevailed for a time and resulted in so many streets and squares being named after Hindenburg not to mention the zeppelin that so famously caught fire in New Jersey in 1937.

Erase Hindenburg and what is mainly being erased is the reminder that society’s values – and this applies to the values of democratic societies as well – change, and that there were different ways of thinking in the past.

History in stone

In Münster, the city council’s iconoclastic decision has resulted in a citizens’ initiative that will voted by referendum on September 16. On that day, Münsterians decide if Hindenburg stays or goes. Some of them may remember that the very first citizens’ initiative in Germany took place in 1967 in West Berlin, when the street called Kaiserdamm (after German Emperor Wilhelm II) was about to be re-baptized Konrad-Adenauer-Damm. The Berliners wanted comfy old Wilhelm – and their history -- to stay.

Politicians had to withdraw their plan to rename the street. There can be no doubt that Adenauer, chancellor of Germany from 1949 to 1963, is actually a more “comfortable” figure than "Willusch," as the emperor was known in Berlin. But history isn’t only made up of folk we now perceive as “good,” and cities in any case are history in stone.

If Münster’s citizens don’t care to look at the Berlin precedent, they can look at Israel. In Tel Aviv, the main business street has since the days of the British Mandate been named after Field Marshall Edmund Allenby, aka the "Bloody Bull," who conquered Syria and Palestine during the First World War. In Jerusalem, the main street is King George V Street. The Israelis fought hard for their independence from the British. And yet they don’t perceive it as necessary to get rid of all traces of the former colonialists.

The German re-baptizing fetish is not a sign of a democratic mindset. All it does is reveal a wish to be without history. And that wish, as George Orwell showed in "1984," is totalitarian at heart.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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