Anyone taking an outing into the countryside of eastern Germany could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that, 16 years after German reunification, the communists still rule the country. The most important streets in almost every village have names like Ernst Thälmann Street (named after the former head of the party), Rosa Luxemburg Street (named after one of the founding members of the German communist movement) or Street of Friendship (to commemorate the alliance of Soviet Russia and communist East Germany). These names have not only survived the peaceful revolution of autumn 1989 and reunification a year later, but also continue to exist after 16 years of democracy.
When the communists came to power in eastern Germany after the Second World War, one of their pushiest acts was to immortalize their heroes on streets and squares. All the previous names, whether they were composers or flowers, were forced to make way for communist icons. Football stadiums and iron works were given the names of high-ranking communist leaders. The city of Chemnitz became Karl Marx Stadt.
While those two cities have reverted to their original names, many communist names still survive today. The communist party itself managed to correct the worst excesses. At least all memory of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was erased, in the same way that German communist party leader Walter Ulbricht fell out of favor. As early as 1962 Stalinallee in Berlin was renamed Frankfurterallee.
After the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1989, German people also unleashed their anger on the practice of abusing public spaces for the purposes of propaganda. Particularly in big cities, names such as Otto Grotewohl (the GDR's first prime minister), Otto Winzer (East Germany's foreign minister) or Georgi Dimitroff (head of the Comintern) were all wiped off maps. But the revolutionary enthusiasm soon fizzled out, and, particularly in the eastern German countryside, socialist culture on street signs is alive and well.
Keeping German communism alive
An investigation carried out by the Memorial for Victims of the Stasi in Berlin has now revealed that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) -- as East Germany was known -- lives on in many areas of eastern Germany. The founding father of the communist movement, Karl Marx, is remembered in 550 German streets. His comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels appears on 243 streets or squares. While 596 streets are named after Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were murdered after an attempted putsch in 1919. But the out and out winner is Ernst Thälmann who wanted to overturn the Weimar Republic in favor of a communist government and was killed in a Nazi concentration camp: a total of 613 streets and squares are named after him.
In many places socialism's supposed achievements are also still celebrated today: 337 Streets of Youth commemorate the communist cult of youth in work and agriculture; 285 Streets of Unity still exist in honor of the forced merger of the SPD socialist party and the KPD communist party; 220 Streets of Friendship remember the "unbreakable" bond with the Soviet Union; 90 Streets of the Pioneers praise the German communist party's children's organizations. Even communist abbreviations still exist on many street signs -- despite the fact that fewer and fewer people actually still know what they stand for: 48 DSF Streets commemorate the Society for German-Soviet Friendship, 44 LPG Streets recognize the achievements of the Agricultural Cooperative for Collective Production and 36 MTS Streets celebrate East Germany's Machinery and Tractor Stations.
Even communist party functionaries, who were involved in setting up and maintaining the East German dictatorship, are still commemorated in many eastern German towns: 90 streets are named after Wilhelm Pieck, the first head of the governing SED German socialist party and the first state president of the GDR. Seventeen recall the head of government Otto Grotewohl who violently suppressed the insurrection of June 17, 1953. Members of the East Germany's communist central committee, such as Otto Arndt, Kurt Bürger, Erwin Kramer and Otto Winzer, are also still remembered in street names. Even Walter Ulbricht, who was banned from public life in the GDR in 1972, still has a street: in Chemnitz. Twenty streets commemorate border soldiers killed in action, the study points out.
What about the dissidents?
While the SED dictatorship is alive and well in eastern Germany, resistance against the regime is barely commemorated at all. An appeal by well-known civil rights activists in 2003 did little to change this. Only 16 street names recall the people's uprising of 1953, while a mere 10 commemorate the East German dissident Robert Havemann. Apart from that barely a dozen streets in Germany are named after victims of the communist regime, such as Arno Esch, Jürgen Fuchs, Walter Janka or Walter Linse.
So what does it say about Germany if, 16 years after reunification, almost every eastern German village pays homage to the East German communist dictatorship while forgetting its victims and those who fought against it? Nothing good. And it should be corrected.