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announced the renaming in March 2012, choosing the bland but accurate Schlossplatz (rather than reverting to the now out-of-date name it had held since the 1700s of Neuplatz or New Square).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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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