People don't say hello to Christoph Gottschalk on the street anymore, and his wife gets snapped at when she is at the local athletic club. Another resident who shares his opinions is ignored in some bars, and the gardening club refuses to rent him a wood chipper. Gottschalk, 61, and his comrades-in-arms feel like outcasts in their own neighborhood, all because they are fighting to change the name of their district from that of a convicted Nazi war criminal.
In 1956, Völklingen, a town in the western German state of Saarland, decided to dedicate a memorial to Hermann Röchling (1872-1955), an industrialist and a Nazi, and to name a district after him. Today, about 1,300 people live in Hermann Röchling Heights, an idyllic hilltop neighborhood built next to a forest. The neighborhood is well-removed from the town's trouble spots, and everything there would be just fine -- if it weren't for Gottschalk and his handful of kindred spirits.
They persistently point out that Hermann Röchling was a Nazi convicted of crimes against humanity, who approached Adolf Hitler in 1933 to ask him to prevent the Saar region, which was still being administered by the League of Nations at the time, from becoming a "Jewish conservation area." As a businessman, he exploited thousands of forced laborers during World War II, and had the insubordinate workers sent to a labor camp near his plant.
A Recurring Problem
German towns and cities are often faced with the task of renaming streets and squares. In most cases, they were originally named after people whose activities are viewed more critically today, either for their roles during the Nazi era or their anti-Semitic views.
One example is the Treitschkestrasse in Berlin, named after the 19th century German historian and politician, Heinrich von Treitschke, who is credited with the phrase: "The Jews are our misfortune!"
Hindenburgplatz, a square in the northern city of Münster, named after the controversial German president Paul von Hindenburg, recently attracted attention when 60 percent of local citizens voted in a referendum to rename it "Schlossplatz," after the city's palace.
The situation is reversed in Völklingen, where most people want to keep the Nazi industrialist's name. It's time to finally let bygones be bygones, says a local baker. A real estate agent fears that property prices could fall "because Hermann Röchling Heights is, after all, a brand name."
Another resident is worried about the local football club, which has the same name, and wants to know who will pay for its new jerseys. Mayor Klaus Lorig, 60, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a former history teacher, says that erasing names isn't the way to come to terms with the past.
Gottschalk is familiar with these arguments. About three years ago, he and some other Völklingen residents launched a public campaign to rename the district. He thought he was doing the right thing, but he only managed to get 200 signatures for his petition.
Viewed As a Benefactor
Many residents of Völklingen see Röchling, once an ardent Nazi, primarily as a benefactor. In the past, up to 17,000 people worked at the Röchling family ironworks. Today, the ironworks is a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting up to 400,000 visitors per year.
Older residents describe Röchling as a boss who maintained rigid discipline at the ironworks, but would ride through the city after work to inquire after the health of his workers. He also maintained a so-called milk kitchen, where mothers and children could get something to eat, and built a hospital for the ironworks.
"And suddenly all of that isn't supposed to be true anymore?" asks Gabriel Theisen, 56. He and other Völklingen residents have established an association called "The Future of Hermann Röchling Heights." He has heard about the forced laborers, and about Röchling sending them to labor camps. But, he adds, "Röchling didn't go to the labor camps himself and somehow mistreat them." According to Theisen, Röchling was merely complying with the system in place at the time.
The district would lose its identity if it were given a new name, warns Torsten Krieg, 41, the association's press spokesman. "Young people today even call it Hermi," says Krieg. "I think that's sweet."
'I Felt Like I Was At a Nazi Event'
In June, the Völklingen town council was scheduled to vote on a motion by the Left Party to rename the district. Some 150 angry residents showed up, many carrying signs that read: "Keep Hermann Röchling Heights." The opponents of the old name were booed. Members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) were cheered when they argued that it is not right "that because of a few proponents of change, decisions are made without taking the opinions of all other citizens into account."
Fred Engel-Pollak, 79, a member of the group in favor of renaming the district, says that he couldn't sleep for two nights after the meeting. "I felt like I was at a Nazi event," he says.
Engel-Pollak, born in Völklingen in 1933, had a Jewish mother, and relatives hid him from the Nazis. He thought it was outrageous when a part of the city was named after Röchling in the first place, but he is incredulous that, in 2012, a majority of Völklingen residents are fighting to keep the name of the district as if they were defending a piece of the city's soul.
The Left Party has placed the matter on the town council's agenda once again, this time for mid-December. To prevent themselves from being accused of promoting "the dictatorship of a minority," they now want the issue to be put up for a referendum.
A referendum would be a victory for the defenders of Hermann Röchling Heights, because most Völklingen residents are not expected to vote in favor of renaming the district. In other words, it'll be business as usual.