x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Berlin divided over 'Ronald Reagan Strasse'

Only two in five Berliners support proposals to name a street or square in Germany's capital after the US president who helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

Ronald Reagan acknowledges the crowd after his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, in which he urged the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to 'tear down this wall!'
Ronald Reagan acknowledges the crowd after his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, in which he urged the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to 'tear down this wall!'

BERLIN // More than two decades after the fall of communism, the German capital remains haunted by ideological divisions.

The Berlin city government, in which former communists share power, has long ignored demands that it should name a street or square after Ronald Reagan in honour of the former US president's role in bringing down the Berlin Wall.

Germany's centre-right government increased the pressure on Berlin last week by criticising the lack of a major ceremony in the city on February 6 to mark the 100th birthday of the president, who died in 2004.

The defence minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, said in a speech marking German-American relations this month: "It is a disgrace that a Berlin city government staggering between stupidity and ideology didn't even see fit to celebrate 100 years of Ronald Reagan."

Mr zu Guttenberg suggested that the city should attach a plaque to the Brandenburg Gate where Reagan gave his famous speech on June 12, 1987, in which he said: "Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Reagan is widely credited with having played a key role in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees by accelerating the arms race during the 1980s. His speech in Berlin exuded an optimism that few Germans at the time shared, despite the liberal reforms being introduced by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall was finally opened on November 9, 1989, most Germans were still convinced that they would not see it fall in their lifetimes.

But many Germans retain an ambivalent attitude towards the Republican president who was deeply controversial here in the 1980s because of his deployment of increasing numbers of nuclear missiles on West German soil.

The battle over whether to commemorate Reagan has been going on for years. Since 2001, Berlin has been governed by an alliance of Social Democrats and the Left Party, which has its roots in the communist party that ruled East Germany.

The city administration has steadfastly ignored calls to honour Reagan, pointing out that he was made an honorary citizen of Berlin in 1992 and insisting that any move to name a street after him would be up to Berlin's 12 district councils. Half of them have already refused.

Only the western district of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf has arranged a vote on the issue after a motion was brought by the local conservative Christian Democratic Union party of Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to name a square along the Kurfürstendamm, western Berlin's main boulevard, Ronald Reagan Square.

However, the CDU does not have a majority in the district council and the motion is expected to be rejected.

"Ronald Reagan came to Berlin in 1987 when everyone, really everyone had resigned themselves to Germany's division, and he told the Kremlin to tear down the Wall," said BZ, a local Berlin newspaper, in an editorial. "With his daring rearmament, Reagan precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the prison of communism was opened. Europe was free."

Hubertus Knabe, the director of a museum about East Germany's "Stasi" secret police, said: "Berlin has enough streets named after communists. One of them could be renamed as Ronald Reagan street."

He told Focus, a news magazine, that the city was shirking its responsibility by letting individual districts decide on the matter.

Nevertheless, an opinion poll for Focus this month showed that 52 per cent of Germans would be against a Ronald Reagan Street in Berlin, with 42 per cent in favour.

Reagan is far less popular in Berlin than the former US President John F Kennedy, still cherished for his June 1963 visit when he declared in a speech: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

That pledge of continued American support warmed the hearts of West Berliners, still reeling from the construction of the Wall two years earlier. Kennedy has a square named after him and a museum dedicated to him which is opposite the Brandenburg Gate.

The Reagan debate is part of a broader problem. Lingering east-west, left-right enmity has obstructed the city's efforts to commemorate its division for years.

Berlin has often been accused of doing a poor job of preserving the memory of the Cold War era. Visitors complain that they cannot find traces of the Berlin Wall, and the city government admits that too much of the hated 166-kilometre barrier was torn down in the rush to get rid of it in the early 1990s.

Political wrangling and ideological rifts within the city administration are partly to blame because they have prevented Berlin from adopting a consistent, uniform approach towards remembering its division.

Conservatives accuse former communists of playing down the injustice of a regime that snooped on its citizens, locked away dissidents and operated an unofficial shoot-to-kill policy along the Wall. By contrast, many easterners have fond memories of a system that offered full employment and cradle-to-grave welfare, and feel they have lost out under capitalism.

This battle over the memory of the Cold War is still raging, and has resulted in delays and indecision. The city still has no comprehensive public museum dedicated to the history of its division.

In addition, critics say Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing between East and West Berlin, looks like a cheap tourist trap with fake soldiers, a replica guard hut and fast food bars such as one called "Snackpoint Charlie."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae