Farewell to Hindenburgplatz

A referendum in a German town over a street name sparks a debate over whether ambiguous historical figures should be honoured.

The city of Munster-Westphalia in northern Germany held a local referendum last week about renaming a central square outside the old Prince-Bishops Palace. The vote went in favour of the prosaic name Schlossplatz or Palace Square but not without first creating an energetic display of local democracy in action.

National referendums in Germany are prohibited by the German constitution for fear that they are a tool of demagogues, as of course they were in the 1930s. However, referendums on local issues are allowed - a planned vote on spending €3bn on a maglev line to Munich Airport in 2008 was key to the cancellation of that project. Munster’s vote, however, was on the more parochial issue of a street name.

The large central square outside the baroque Prince-Bishops Palace had been renamed Hindenburgplatz in 1927 in honour of the First World War general and then Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg. With the Palace now occupied by the main buildings of the prestigious Munster University, the square being the end point for annual marathon and the site of fairs this address was now proving an embarrassment.

The political initiative to rename it, however, could not be taken by the left, in case of cries of political correctness. Instead it was the Christian Democrat mayor who announced the renaming in March 2012, choosing the bland but accurate Schlossplatz (rather than reverting to the now out-of-date name it had held since the 1700s of Neuplatz or New Square). He got overwhelming backing from all but his own party in the city council.

Immediately the renaming caused consternation amongst the more traditionally minded citizens. They raised the signatures required to petition for a referendum and hence last week’s vote.

Having raised a stir many presumed that the "Yes" campaign to reinstate the name Hindenburgplatz would easily win. It is only a street and only those who had got worked up by the renaming would bother to vote; so Hindenburgplatz would win overwhelmingly on a low turnout. The three previous referendums in Munster, which also asked citizens to vote to overturn council decisions, had all gone this way.

The "Yes" campaign, however, soon found itself in a double-bind. Acknowledging that all historical figures are ambiguous it focused on the name now being part of the city’s history and on the mayor’s lack of consultation with citizens. But the issue soon focussed on the character of President Hindenburg. A large "No" campaign supporting the council’s decision emerged with the slogan: “For democracy, Hindenburg had no place. We have no place for him”. Moreover the "No" campaign pointed out that the issue had got national attention; to re-honour Hindenburg would embarrass the city and give succour to neo-nazis, who may choose the city as a new base. The local newspaper the Westfalische Nachrichten stated in an editorial that they could have let the issue rest but once the process to remove the name Hindenburgplatz had started it had to continue.

With the SPD, FDP, Greens and Left along with the CDU mayor and the city’s CDU MP all favouring Schlossplatz when the vote came it went "Yes" 41 per cent and "No" 59 per cent with a higher than normal turnout of over 40 per cent. As one resident said “It was the correct result but I’ll still always think of it as Hindenburgplatz”.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”