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announced the renaming in March 2012, choosing the bland but accurate Schlossplatz (rather than reverting to the now out-of-date name it had held since the 1700s of Neuplatz or New Square).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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser