John F. Kennedy has a school, a museum and a square named in his honor in Berlin. But Ronald Reagan just can't seem to get any respect in the German capital. Despite his famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate, the greatest honor given the 40th United States president is a mention in a historical diorama inside a subway station, a photograph in the city-state's parliament and plans for a stele to be placed in his honor in a park.
Compared to Kennedy, Berlin has shown very little pride in a man who gave what some consider to be one of the most important speeches in the city's history two and a half decades ago. On June 12, 1987, Reagan implored: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Two and a half years later, on Dec. 22, 1989, the Soviet leader allowed precisely that to happen. The Wall was opened, as was the Brandenburg Gate.
Trailblazer for Reunification or Cold War Hawk?
That's why many in Berlin see Reagan, who would have turned 100 last Sunday, as a trailblazer for German reunification. Indeed, some would like to see the city do more to publicly honor the man. In December, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg proposed the idea, on behalf of his party, the conservative Christian Social Union, of placing an official commemorative plaque honoring Reagan on Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Guttenberg's CSU is the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. The Berlin branch of the CDU, for its part, is calling for the renaming of a public square or a street in Reagan's honor. But so far nothing has happened.
Reagan fans claim that the Berlin government, led by Mayor Klaus Wowereit of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Left Party, the successor to East Germany's Communist Party, is doing everything it can to block any attempts to honor Reagan. But officials within the city government describe the allegation as absurd. "That is total nonsense," said government spokesman Richard Meng. He said the city administration had first received a written request at the beginning of January to begin looking for suitable squares or streets that might be renamed after Reagan.
It's a bizarre fight that is taking shape, but it is anything but original. Sources in the city-state's government, the Senate, say that proposals for more Reagan in the capital are a "heart and soul issue for the conservatives."
And is there not a slight whiff of truth to claims that the city's leftist government has trouble with Ronald Reagan as a person? The Republican, who since his death from Alzheimer's in 2004 has become the most popular US president ever, was considered by the German left during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1989 to be the personification of the Cold War. Reagan's appearance in West Berlin in 1987 was not without risks. In adddition to the Cold War aspects, his message of Reaganomics was deeply unpopular with the city's anti-capitalism movement. For West Berlin's mayor at the time, Eberhard Diepgen, himself a conservative, Reagan's visit was a political minefield that left the CDU man sweating.
Decades later, Reagan fans in Berlin believe that current Mayor Wowereit and his government are glossing over the issue to keep their party base happy.
Merkel Said to Be Irritated
Defense Minister Guttenberg has called the city government's conduct "shameful." During a Reagan commemorative event held at the former prison of East Germany's Stasi secret police in Berlin on Monday night, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported, the CSU politician once again called for a memorial plaque to be placed in Reagan's honor in front of the Brandenburg Gate and for ideological squabbles over the issue to be buried. Guttenberg said Chancellor Merkel also supports his idea and that she shares his "incomprehension" over the city's handling of the issue.
The former president's fans have also criticized Berlin for its official events commemorating what would have been Reagan's 100th birthday. Together with US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy, Walter Momper, president of the city's parliament, laid two wreaths under a portrait of Reagan in the city-state's parliament building. A spokesperson for the Senate said the city had also sent a bouquet to the official commemorative ceremony in the United States.
But that doesn't go far enough for the CDU's state chapter in Berlin. Chapter head Frank Henkel said that Berlin should have held its own official commemorative event. He also accused Mayor Wowereit of avoiding finding any words of praise for Reagan. Henkel said it is now high time for "diginified gestures."
They could soon follow, as well. The city councillor responsible for building and planning in western Berlin's Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district, Klaus-Dieter Gröhler, has now responded to the request by city officials to identify possible locations. His suggestion: Joachimstaler Platz, which is located near the city's famous Café Kranzler and the Bahnhof Zoo train station, could become Ronald Reagan Square. The local district council could decide on the proposal by the CDU politician as early as Feb. 17.
In Berlin, the city's district administrations also have a good degree of autonomy in decision-making. But even if the district council of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, which like the state of Berlin is ruled by a SPD-Left Party government, does vote in favor of renaming Joachimstaler Platz, it still faces another hurdle. For the past six years, an ordinance has been in place in the district requiring that any further name changes made to streets be made in honor of women.
Gröhler said the ordinance had been agreed to "because we determined back then that only 4 percent of the squares and streets had female names."
It's a hurdle, for sure, but not one that can't be overcome, Gröhler said. After all, the Berlin district already wants to make one exception to the rule -- it wants to name a public site after composer Friedrich Hollaender. The Jewish composer was forced to flee the district and the Nazis in 1933.
If Gröhler has his way, though, a square will soon be named after Reagan.