Right after the Nazis were defeated and World War II came to an end, the Allies made a list of their biggest immediate priorities for keeping Berlin stable: food and fuel, housing, public health and renaming streets that glorified the Third Reich.
Decades later, the German capital has rubbed most of its painful Nazi history off its urban landscape. Instead, memorials and monuments are now ubiquitous, including so-called “stumbling stones,” or brass plaques placed near the front of buildings where Nazi victims once lived.
But thanks for these shouldn’t be reserved for the authorities, more so the city’s residents. The stumbling stones, for example, started as a commemorative project by artist Gunter Demnig. He laid the first ones illegally over 20 years ago, eventually getting lots of press and all kinds of official blessings (now there are over 56,000 stumbling stones in 22 European countries).
The reality is that German bureaucracy makes it very difficult for memorials to be recognized and monuments to be erected. This is especially the case when it comes to dedicating new street names.
“The street belongs to the district.”
Just look at Berlin’s so-called African Quarter, where activists have called for years to have streets dedicated to German colonialists renamed. In 1986, local authorities even had to sidestep red tape by “rededicating” the street Petersallee. It was originally named for colonialist ruler Carl Peters, but was rededicated to Nazi resistance leader Dr. Hans Peters with just a small plaque.
Now there is a new argument on the streets of the western Berlin district of Wedding, where a new public square is nearing completion after seven years. In 2014, the local municipality agreed to let it be named. After taking suggestions on names from the public, the real estate agency developing the property settled on one from a local neighborhood organization, Elise and Otto Hampel Square. This was in honor of a working-class couple who lived in the area and secretly planted anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin during the war. They were arrested and beheaded in 1943 under charges of high treason.
The Hampels’ heroism has already been immortalized through “Alone in Berlin,” a best-selling novel inspired by their story and a film of the same name starring Oscar-winner Emma Thompson. Last year the film competed for the top prize at the prestigious Berlinale film festival.
But it seems as though the couple won’t get a memorial square. The authorities in charge of public spaces have protested that naming the square would interrupt the continuity of a main street, Muellerstrasse, forcing the district and unemployment offices located directly on the square to change their addresses. So while one public bureau has given the green light, the other denied the formal request in October of last year.
After an uproar and several petitions, the real estate agency appealed the request in February. It was thrown out last week.
The neighborhood organization that made the suggestion is deeply frustrated, insisting the square belongs to district residents who would ultimately not be affected by the name change.
“Elise and Otto Hampel lived around the corner in Wedding and it was on Muellerstrasse where they distributed most of their leaflets and postcards,” spokesperson Christoph Keller told Handelsblatt Global. “Elise Hampel worked as a seamstress, her husband Otto Hampel worked in a Siemens’ cable manufacturing plant. They are part of Wedding’s history … and of the ‘ordinary people’ who achieved a lot. They deserve remembrance in the form of a named square or street.”
But it seems that the square, which is scheduled to open in December, will remain nameless for at least four years because of legal technicalities.
The situation is a far cry from the portrayal of German behavior in the 2015 documentary, Where to Invade Next. In it, American filmmaker Michael Moore praises the country for addressing its past, pointing out the stumbling stones. He remarks that he wished America would accept responsibility for slavery and its other wrongdoings in a similar fashion. “(Germans) don’t whitewash it,” he said. “They don’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
No, they just wrap it up in red tape, instead.
Barbara Woolsey is a writer for Handelsblatt Global. Florian Schumann, a writer for Handelsblatt’s sister publication Tagesspiegel, contributed to this article. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org