Portrait Dr. Remko Leemhuis
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It’s True. Many of Berlin’s Streets Should Be Renamed

This article first appeared in WELT.

In 2011, economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth published a study proving that antisemitic violence and support for the Nazis in the 1920’s were especially pronounced in cities in which, in 1348 and 1350, the plague had already led to pogroms against the local Jewish population. The authors were not able to fully explain this correlation, although they explored certain factors, but they were able to prove conclusively that the connection existed.

This study came to this writer’s mind a few days ago, when an opinion piece by Hubertus Knabe appeared in this newspaper, in which Knabe inveighed against the potential renaming or contextualizing street names and plazas in Berlin. His article came in reaction to a file on street and plaza names with antisemitic backgrounds, which was compiled by historian Dr. Felix Sassmannshausen on request of the Contact Person for Antisemitism for the State of Berlin, Prof. Samuel Salzborn.

There are certainly names in this document, such as the CDU politician Konrad Adenauer, that are surprising and by which neither renaming nor contextualizing would be sensible or appropriate. Nevertheless, it is at least worth mentioning that the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany was quoted saying that, “The power of the Jews, even today, especially in America, should not be underestimated.” And it was Hans Globke, one of the most significant contributors to the Nuremberg Race Laws, who led Adenauer’s chancellery. That does not lessen the Adenauer’s merit concerning German-Israeli relations or the integration of West Germany in its early years with the West. Adenauer poses a clear example of the complexity of history and of historic figures, and how views of them and their actions rarely lend themselves to simple assessment.

Nevertheless, there are still people who are honored with streets and plazas in Berlin bearing their names, where a renaming would be appropriate. The racist antisemite, Heinrich von Treitschke, is one example: He is known for having said, “The Jews are our misfortune”, and during the “Berlin antisemitism conflict” of the years 1879 to 1881, he warned against foreign infiltration by Jews from Eastern Europe.

There are figures like Richard Wagner, who wrote the antisemitic essay, “Judaism in Music” in 1850, and whose musical work is, in part, pervaded by antisemitic sentiments. In his case, there is much to be said for a renaming, but a contextualization might also be appropriate.

And to take another example: For several years, there has been an active debate concerning the renaming of “Mohrenstraße” (Moor Street) in Berlin-Mitte. Here, too, a renaming would be appropriate, in the view of the author of this text. Some time ago, it was suggested that this street be renamed to honor Fritz Bauer. This would achieve two goals: On the one hand, in the course of a name change, the racist term “Mohr” (Moor) could be put in context and discussed from an etymological perspective. On the other hand, it would be an opportunity to honor a true hero of German postwar history. Bauer was not only the chief prosecutor in the Auschwitz trials, but he is also responsible for the fact that Adolf Eichmann was brought to justice in Jerusalem for his crimes. This would be a particularly sensible solution, since the main entrance to the Federal Ministry of Justice is located on the street in question.

It is also unclear why an outright antisemite like Henry Ford, whom Knabe simply refers to as a “businessman”, should continue to be honored in this way. The same goes for “Turnvater Jahn” (“Father of Gymnastics Jahn”) and Charles Lindbergh, both of whom were fervent antisemites. And in the case of Martin Luther, whom Knabe simply calls, “Father of German Protestantism”, it would be more than fitting to at least mention his hatred of Jews, which had a significant effect on German cultural history. These examples alone demonstrate the complexity of this debate.

Would it not therefore make sense to take this opportunity to discuss each of the names on the list individually, and then to contextualize the corresponding streets and plazas, either renaming them or, after debating, to leave them as they are. Would we not wish that the citizens of the German capital use this document as the basis for an informed historical and political discussion, at the end of which, in any case, the participants would have learned something about the ambivalence of historical figures. This would not be an “attack on the cultural memory of a nation”, as Knabe writes. It would be an opportunity to rethink and update the way history is treated. Because, human beings have always reflected on the past, and shouldn’t that reflection should be a given, especially in a liberal democracy?

A constructive debate is not, however, aided by placing the contemplation of historic figures, their ambivalence, and possible consequences in the form of renaming in the vicinity of Hitler, Mao, or the iconoclasm of clerical fascists of the “Islamic States” or Taliban, as Knabe does, stifling any possible debate.

It is worth recalling the words of the philosopher and Shoah survivor Jean Améry from the mid-1960s: “What happened between 1933 and 1945 in Germany, as will be taught and said, could have happened anywhere under similar conditions – and one will no longer insist on the triviality that it happened in Germany and not somewhere else.”

In the context of this discussion, that also means that the path to Auschwitz and to the mass shootings in Eastern Europe, although it was not direct, was connected with people mentioned in this file and with their actions. The study mentioned above bears witness to the continuity and persistence of antisemitism in this country.

And in closing, it should be said that it is unspeakable that Knabe so bitterly attacks the file at hand and its author and commissioner on the one hand, while he himself, in a post to his personal blog three years ago, thoroughly documented and criticized the number of streets and plazas that are still named after communists and SED functionaries. In this context, he himself pleaded for renaming.

Knabe ended his blog article with the words: “It says a lot about the political culture of Germany that, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the central figures of the communist dictatorship are still widely honored, while the victims and the resistance are forgotten – and no one seems to mind.” To this statement, one must respond that it also says a lot about the political culture 77 years after the end of World War II that in the city from which the plans were laid for the disenfranchisement, persecution, and systematic murder of six million European Jews, people are still honored today, whose actions paved the way for the Shoah, and yet, until now, there is no Fritz Bauer Street. And no one seems to mind.

Dr. Remko Leemhuis is Director of American Jewish Committee Berlin.