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.