Perhaps the new situation after the fall of the Wall could have offered all of Berlin a chance to figure out, without rancor and haste, which names stand for our common and divided history. There are many distinct voices in favor of doing just that – also in the Western part of the city. Professor Reinhard Rürup, a history professor at the Technical University, said in the House of Representatives’ committee on cultural affairs: “The mere fact that a street was given a new name during GDR times isn’t reason enough to change it back . . . We have a lot of political names in West Berlin. Therefore, one shouldn’t look with consternation at the streets in the East today.” The popular counterargument that street names in the West “evolved with history” obscures the impact that the great upheavals in Germany during this century have had on street names. For example, Königgrätzstraße in Berlin (referring to the site of a Prussian victory in 1866) was renamed Stresemannstraße during the Weimar Republic; in 1935, it was renamed Saarlandstraße (on the occasion of the annexation of the Saarland to the German Reich), and after the war it became Stresemannstraße once again. Reichskanzlerplatz (1932) became Adolf-Hitler-Platz (1939), then Reichskanzlerplatz once again; at the beginning of the sixties it became Theodor-Heuss-Platz.
Every system seeks to set itself apart from what came before through renamings. As early as 1926, a commission of city deputies was appointed to work on the renaming of streets and squares. A decree by the East German Council of Ministers dated March 30, 1950, “for the elimination of names of streets, roads, and squares that are no longer tolerable” initiated the renaming wave in the East. Names that were “militaristic, fascistic, or anti-democratic” in character were to disappear by July 31, 1950. The most important criterion for new names was a “close connection to the anti-fascist-democratic order.”
A Broken Relationship to Victims of the Nazi Period
The streets in the East also denote a certain course of political development and a radical turning point in this century. History cannot be twisted into what we would like it to be. In the Western districts of Berlin, it is perfectly fine for Adenauer, Marx, and Kaiser Wilhelm to adorn street signs at the same time. Why shouldn’t the East contribute some democratic-humanistic traditions, which it undoubtedly also possesses, and which are characterized by names like Heine, Bebel, Tucholsky, Ossietzky, or by the large number of anti-Fascists who lost their lives during the Nazi period? What a signal Berlin could send by acknowledging murder victims like Lilo Herrmann, a twenty-eight-year-old student who, in 1938, having been found guilty of resistance by the Volksgerichtshof, became the first woman executed in Germany. Many of these names are now supposed to simply disappear. As one woman author has written: “The victims of Nazism are put on a par with those of Stalinism and the Stasi. There’s a mixing, a blurring, a leveling going on . . . People are probably supposed to doubt the dignity of the victims and the necessity of remembering.” And so the “Straße der Befreiung” [“Street of Liberation”] in Lichtenberg also disappears.
No doubt, there are many who welcome the return of names that refer to the city and to history, like Rathausstraße, Gendarmenmarkt, Alt-Friedrichsfelde, or Breite Straße. But there’s also the view that history has made its mark, certainly not a final mark, and that one should ask oneself in complete equanimity which names bestowed under the old system are indeed no longer tolerable. Maybe the time has come for us to learn to live with our entire history. In April 1967, 100,000 West Berliners signed a petition to prevent Kaiserdamm from being renamed Adenauerdamm. They were probably less interested in Kaiser Wilhelm than in preserving a traditional name that has played a role – however one might assess it – in history. Another example: at a citizens’ meeting on July 13, 1991, about 150 residents of Friedrichshain voted against the renaming of Leninplatz.