GHDI logo

Processing the Past and the Renaming of Streets (September 18, 1991)

Street names have substantial symbolic and historical value, and conflicts over the naming – and renaming – of streets have become a regular part of regime changes. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1990, numerous Berlin streets were renamed, and many of the changes unleashed a crossfire of criticism. This article examines why certain street names were chosen while others were excluded.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 3

Will Wilhelm Survive the Street Fight?
Pieck and the Hohenzollerns in a single city / Reflections before the final round of renaming

For months a “street fight” has been raging in the East. The quarrel over streets whose names carry the burden of GDR history has given rise to completely divergent views on coming to terms with the past. The issue is going to heat up again during the final round of renaming in the last quarter of this year. The following essay should offer additional points to think about and reflect upon before new facts are established.

In May, after the District Deputies’ Assembly in Berlin-Mitte had – by a vote of 37 out of 68 – rejected the idea of either renaming Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße or restoring its original name, calls resounded throughout Berlin’s House of Representatives: “tasteless,” “organized insanity,” “a slap in the face for Berlin.” The competency of the deputies in Mitte, and of the districts in general, was called into question. CDU Bundestag representative Jochen Feilcke, who had already symbolically pasted the name Wilhelmstraße over the street signs for Otto-Grotewohl-Straße, demanded that the responsibility for renaming streets be “transferred to the Senate at once.” The chairman of the CDU party faction in the House of Representatives, Landowsky, pushed for a change to Berlin’s street-name legislation. The goal was a rapid and comprehensive renaming initiative in the Eastern part of the city. Start date: October 3rd. It would be similar to the “concerted action” in the Thuringian town of Gera, where sixty streets had been renamed by March 1st. Now, the renaming is to take place under the authority of the districts; and if at all possible it will occur in all of the districts simultaneously between October 1st and December 31st.

The Past is to be Quickly Cast aside

The heated arguments of the past few months have been highly effective in the media; after all, the issue revolved and revolves around symbols, which have always had great importance in times of profound upheaval. It would seem that there’s a great rush where one might have hoped for distance and differentiated views. The city is to be “done with its past” in short order. As early as November 1990, a list of about 230 proposed names had already been chosen by the “Street Renaming” working group under the direction of the first deputy of the then-mayor of East Berlin; the list included names like Arnold Zweig, August Bebel, Bernhard Lichtenberg, the Paris Commune, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Scholl siblings, Heinrich Heine, Heinrich Mann, and Frank Wedekind. One thousand six hundred and seventy-three suggestions regarding 238 street names were submitted by mail. It was striking how little distinction seems to have been made between the “problematic Stalinist legacy” and the democratic, humanistic traditions that are also recalled by street names in the East.

first page < previous   |   next > last page