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announced the renaming in March 2012, choosing the bland but accurate Schlossplatz (rather than reverting to the now out-of-date name it had held since the 1700s of Neuplatz or New Square).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”.

David Lammy. Photo: Getty
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David Lammy calls for parliament to overturn the EU referendum result

The Labour MP for Tottenham said Britain could "stop this madness through a vote in Parliament".

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, has called on parliament to stop Brexit.

In a statement published on Twitter, he wrote: "Wake up. We do not have to do this. We can stop this madness and bring this nightmare to an end through a vote in Parliament. Our sovereign Parliament needs to now vote on whether we should exit the EU. 

"The referendum was an advisory, non-binding referendum. The Leave campaign's platform has already unravelled and some people wish they hadn't voted to Leave. Parliament now needs to decide whether we should go forward with Brexit, and there should be a vote in Parliament next week. Let us not destroy our economy on the basis of lies and the hubris of Boris Johnson."

Lammy's words follow a petition to re-run the referendum, which has gathered 1.75 million signatures since Friday.

However, the margin of victory in the referendum - more than a million votes - makes it unlikely party leaders would countenance any attempt to derail the Brexit process. On Saturday morning, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said there should be no second referendum. Tory leader David Cameron has also accepted the result, and triggered a leadership election.

It is true, though, that had Britain's EU membership been decided in parliament, rather than by a referendum, there would have been an overwhelming vote to Remain. Just 138 Tory MPs declared for Leave, compared with 185 for Remain. In Labour, just 10 declared for Leave, versus 218 for Remain, while no Lib Dem, Scottish Nationalist, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein or SDLP MPs backed Leave.

Rob Ford, an academic who has studied Ukip voters, said Lammy's call was "utter madness":