In my home country, Germany, there have been just as many different reinterpretations of history as there have been regime changes. The “national story” is anything but linear and has none of America’s fairy tale qualities of exceptionalism, flawless Founding Fathers or shining cities on hills.
It’s more crowded with lessons about what you should never do again.
This means nobody in Germany would come up with the idea to create a “national heroes garden with lifelike statues” that Donald Trump got all excited about at Mount Rushmore the other day. In fact, we already had something like that — tacky and boringly realistic statues of “Great Germans” in heroic positions and outfits, commissioned by Emperor Wilhelm II and put up along Victory Avenue (Siegesallee) in Berlin before World War I.
The statues are gone, some lost in World War II, some restored and put on display in a museum that is supposed to remind people of the follies and dead ends in Germany’s national story. Fittingly, the name “Victory Avenue” disappeared as well.
This brings me to a story from my hometown, Remscheid, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. The square in front of City Hall was named and renamed six times in 80 years.
At first it was matter-of-factly called Rathausplatz (City Hall Square).
Then, in the 1880s, it became Kaiserplatz, since Germany by then had a kaiser, a real emperor who was all into imperialism, shiny uniforms and, of course, places named after him.
When the kaiser and Second Reich were gone and Germany had become a republic, the neutral Rathausplatz seemed a good choice again.
In 1933 the Nazis not only introduced Reich number three but also legislation that required every city to name a major street after the great dictator. My hometown bent over backward and renamed both Main Street and Rathausplatz, which for the next 12 years was Adolf-Hitler-Platz.
Denazification brought back, for the third time in its brief history, the Rathausplatz, although after the bombing there was less rathaus and more platz.
That’s what I remember it still being called in the 1960s when I grew up and rode my bike across the square. And then, 20 years after WWII, the time seemed ripe for another renaming exercise.
The prize went to Theodor Heuss, first president of West Germany after WWII — a jovial, grandfatherly figure with a cute Swabian accent. The skeleton in his closet that everyone knew about? In 1933, he had voted for the Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers.
He wasn’t the only one. Many of his fellow parliamentarians at the time thought Hitler would be the “maverick outsider needed to shake up Berlin, drain the swamp, and make Germany great again.” With dozens of opposition members already jailed and the chamber filled with “visiting” SA and SS members, armed and in uniform, casting a “nein” vote would have required courage that Heuss simply didn’t have.
Did he redeem himself by successfully nudging Germans to embrace democracy and making sure they didn’t retrace the same disastrous course followed by the Weimar Republic in the 1920s? Most Germans seemed to think so.
Still, had there been social media in the ’60s coupled with today’s moral pomposity, there is a good chance Theodor would have been thrown into Twitter jail and his name erased from history instead of being pasted over the old Rathausplatz signs.
In 1966, when Theodor-Heuss-Platz got its name, no politician’s head had made it yet on any of the deutsche mark coins. Instead there were uncontroversial engravings of eagles and oak leaves, with one exception. The two deutsche mark coin showed the profile of a bald, spectacled older gentleman, physicist and 1918 Nobel laureate Max Planck.
The lesson for today: People will always disagree on what politician to trust, but at least back then they didn’t question quantum mechanics. We’d be a major step ahead in our national healing process if we could at least begin to agree again on the value of science and facts. No “national heroes garden with lifelike statues” needed for that.