Berlin's street signs take a right turn

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The Independent Online
TIME has stood still for 50 years in Clara Zetkin Strasse, a narrow cobbled street in the centre of Berlin bounded by a pockmarked theatre at one end and the Reichstag at the other. The Wall's collapse six years ago at the street's western exit brought little in the way of progress, other than a better class of fettuccine to Cafe Clara at number 90.

The only change residents might have noticed was the sudden disappearance of Zetkin's picture from the East German 10-mark bills she adorned when they were withdrawn from circulation. Now her name is fading away, too. Zetkin, a leading feminist and communist of pre-Nazi Germany, has become the latest victim of a purge as ruthless as the one in Stalin's Russia which killed her in 1933.

In recent weeks workmen have hammered new street signs onto the crumbling walls. By edict of the regional government, the place is now called Dorotheenstrasse, after a princess who may have lacked Zetkin's feminist zeal but hailed from good Prussian stock.

The conservatives who run Berlin in an uneasy coalition with the Social Democrats are determined to wipe offending personalities off the map, but Zetkin may have been their last victim. An attempt to consign another communist woman to the dustbin of history has caused a revolt and forced a compromise that may set a precedent for the future.

Kathe Niederkirchner, a resistance fighter killed by the Nazis, lends her name to the street where the Berlin parliament is situated. The Christian Democrats wanted to change their address without moving, but were outvoted in the regional assembly. Niederkirchner thus survives on the letterheads of the left, while Christian Democrat MPs get business cards with the right kind of resonance: Preussische Landtag Strasse - Prussian Assembly Street.

Berliners hope the fudge will mark the beginning of a lasting cease-fire in the war of the street names that has been raging for nearly 80 years. Since the fall of the Hohenzollerns the city has endured the pet personalities of the Weimar republic, the Nazis, the Communists and the different shades of Berlin's democratic government.

In 1945 all those Adolf Hitler Strasses had to be renamed in a hurry, but even the tradition-conscious west could not find enough Prussian aristocrats to fill the gaps, so they sometimes had to resort to the likes of Karl Marx. In the east the task was much easier. As socialism notched up one triumph after another, suitable candidates came and went with the changing political winds from Moscow.

Opernplatz, the square facing the Opera where patriots warmed themselves by the pyre of burning books during the war, took the name of the 19th century trade unionist August Bebel after 1945, only to revert to Opernplatz following re-unification.

Those who survived political turmoil often perished in the flames of political correctness. Thus Carl Peters, a 19th century colonialist, become a non-person under pressure from the Social Democrats and Greens. The street now bears the name of another Peters, an obscure Berlin councillor.

Six years after the collapse of communism, the Hohenzollern dynasty is present on nine streets, squares and avenues. Kaiser Wilhelm alone has three, and Bismarck another nine. Lenin has gone, but Marx still hangs on in west Berlin, in streets which cannot possibly revert to their previous name - that of the little corporal with the ridiculous moustache.

But don't invest in a new city atlas just yet. Berlin's coalition government is shaky. The Social Democrats are toying with the idea of jumping ship and forming an alliance with the ex-Communists. That could bring Clara Zetkin and her comrades back from oblivion. The wheel of history may be turning again. In Berlin that means all change at the cartographers.

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