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announced the renaming in March 2012, choosing the bland but accurate Schlossplatz (rather than reverting to the now out-of-date name it had held since the 1700s of Neuplatz or New Square).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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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.