Baron Guttenberg is hoping that his proposed
Ronald-Reagan-Straße will give him a shortcut
to the Federal Chancellery
GERMAN DEFENSE MINISTER KARL-Theodor zu Guttenberg wants to dedicate a major street or square in Berlin to former president Ronald Reagan, of all people. Well, why not? It’s not as if there isn’t a precedent for this sort of politically motivated tinkering with the urban landscape.
In fact, Berlin’s street names have changed many times over the centuries. Since 1826 the large thoroughfare around the corner from my flat has gone from being called Straße vor den Thoren (street before the gates) to Elsässer and Lothringer Straße (commemorating the German annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871), to Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße in 1949 (commemorating the first and only president of the communist German Democratic Republic), to Torstraße in 1994. Other streets and squares have experienced a similar fate: The old Babelsberger Platz became Bülowplatz in 1910, Horst-Wessel-Platz in 1933, Karl-Liebknecht-Platz in 1945, only to be renamed Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in 1947. The old Reichskanzlerplatz in western Berlin was renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz in 1933, returned to Reichskanzlerplatz in 1947, and was then renamed Theodor-Heuss-Platz in 1963 following the death of the Federal Republic’s first president.
The old Frankfurter Chaussee was later called Frankfurter Allee, until a long section of it was renamed Stalinallee in 1949 and, finally, Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961. The former Landsberger Platz became Leninplatz in 1950 and Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square) in 1992. New streets are regularly named after anti-Nazi resistance fighters and celebrities, such as the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz in the Potsdamer Platz area. Various local initiatives are dedicated to expunging the names of nineteenth century imperialists and warmongers from Berlin’s streets, replacing them with the monikers of politically correct do-gooders wherever possible. And so it goes.
East Berlin's bombastic Stalinallee was renamed
Karl-Marx-Allee in 1961. I still think it looks
like a Stalinallee, though.
City dwellers and business owners usually hate these renaming sprees. The experience always entails changing stationery and letterheads, sending out vast numbers of change-of-address notices, missed appointments, lost customers, and endless bureaucratic hassles. But that hasn't stopped the name changers in the past.
The telegenic zu Guttenberg – an ambitious conservative aristocrat* with his eyes firmly on the prize of a future chancellorship – told reporters yesterday that “renaming a street for this great honorary citizen would be very welcome, and would demonstrate that the gratitude of [Berlin’s governing Social Democratic – Left Party coalition] does not have to end with Rudi Dutschke.” This was a swipe at the coalition’s decision to rename a portion of the Kochstraße near Checkpoint Charlie as Rudi-Dutschke-Straße in honor of the martyred Sixties rebel. Renaming this street of all places after a left-wing revolutionary was hardly a coincidence – after all, it is the address of both the leftist Tageszeitung newspaper and of the conservative Axel Springer media empire. (The Axel Springer building sports a bust of George H. W. Bush in its front yard – not a pretty sight, but arguably easier on the eyes than what is probably the world’s largest erect male member on permanent display on the wall of the nearby Tageszeitung building.)
Zu Guttenberg not only demands a Ronald-Reagan-Straße for the capital, but has also been shedding copious crocodile tears over the Berlin government’s resistance to staging an official extravaganza to mark the Gipper's one hundredth birthday this coming February. Baron Guttenberg, like all German politicians these days, knows that if he can win Washington’s friendship, he’s already got one foot inside the Federal Chancellery – his enthusiastic support of the Afghan War will likely do the rest. (The recent WikiLeaks revelations highlighting massive US interference in the German political system have only confirmed the obvious.)
With the Reagan centenary just over the horizon, the rest of Germany’s Christian Democratic and Free Democratic coalition are adding their voices to that of the good baron. Back in 2004, Bundestag member Martin Lindner of the Free Democrats had already sought to name the square in front of the new main central station after Reagan. It was given the name “Washington-Platz” instead – close, but not nearly conservative enough for some. Now, responding to zu Guttenberg, Lindner says that “Germany and particularly Berlin owe a great deal to Ronald Reagan, and it is historically short-sighted and arrogant not to honor this great and reliable friend of Germany in an appropriate way.”
The George Bush monument in front of the Axel Springer
building on Berlin's Rudi-Dutschke-Straße. While best
remembered in America as the father of George W., many
Germans recall him as the architect of German reunification
Great and reliable? I actually lived in West Germany for much of Reagan’s presidency and I recall how deeply most Germans hated the man’s guts for his arrogance and his eagerness to play poker with their lives during the last stages of the Cold War, threatening to blow all of Central Europe to hell if that is what it took to prevail in “God’s work.” But his famous “tear down this wall speech” at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, while widely ridiculed at the time, ultimately changed all that. In any case, the world keeps turning, and in the Internet age even the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction with Pershing missiles and neutron bombs quickly turns into yesterday’s news, the subject of yet another TV documentary. To the extent that West Berliners remember Reagan at all, they recall him as a sort of political prophet. East Berliners, to my knowledge, have no opinion about him whatsoever. Thus there’s not likely to be much opposition to yet another name change in Berlin.
But leave my street out of it. It’s been through enough already.
*The baron's full name is Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.