What’s in a name? Berlin wrestles with past in metro station row

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Authorities in Berlin are discovering how hard it can be to close one problematic chapter of the city’s tumultuous history without opening another.

In the wake of a worldwide reckoning with the deep-seated legacies of historical racism, Berlin’s public transit authority BVG announced on Friday that it would rename the Mohrenstrasse (“Moor Street”) stop on the U2 metro line.

Activist groups such as Decolonize Berlin have campaigned for years for the renaming of the street that gives the station its name in the city’s Mitte district, arguing that it derives from black slaves bound to nearby establishments in the late 17th century.

Some historians dispute the street name’s origins and argue the word Mohr is merely old-fashioned rather than derogatory.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Berlin gave the Mohrenstrasse controversy a new momentum by doctoring the station name to read “George Floyd Strasse”.

Even though Berlin’s senate said it would need more time to discuss a street name change, BVG promised to rename the station by December, when metro maps across the capital need to be replaced anyway to show the expanded U5 line.

“Out of understanding and respect for the at times controversial debate about the street name, the BVG has now decided not to use it any longer for naming the underground station,” the transit authority said.

The station’s new name, Glinkastrasse, has its own problematic history, however.

The street, which used to lie on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, was named in 1951 after Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.

However, many of his works are infused with the antisemitic views prevalent among his circle of 19th-century nationalist composers: the opera Prince Kholmsky, for example, is plotted around a Jewish conspiracy to destroy 15th-century Russia from within.

“The plot is antisemitic, even if antisemitism was prevalent and widely accepted at the time,” said Jan Claas Behrends, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “I don’t necessarily think we should get rid of the names of streets or stations named after people like Glinka, but renaming a station after him nowadays in Berlin is quite a different matter.

“Generally, there are few if any figures in history who aren’t in some way problematic, and we need to learn to find ways to deal with that in an open manner rather than making them disappear.”

When asked about Glinka’s views, BVG said its choice of names had been limited by the station’s location. Naming the metro stop after the main road by its western exit, Wilhelmstrasse, had not been an option because the street was too long.

“We did not make a decision in favour of a new name, but against an old name that offended people,” a BVG spokesperson said.

Asked whether Berlin’s public transport company had taken other steps to follow up on the debate started by the Black Lives Matter movement, such as unconscious bias training for ticket inspectors in the face of anecdotal accusations of racial profiling, the spokesperson said no new initiatives had been launched: “We feel quite well positioned in this regard.”

The pending name change will be the fourth in the metro stop’s 112-year history. Originally called “Kaiserhof” after a nearby hotel, the reference to the disgraced Kaiser Wilhelm II was dropped after the second world war to instead honour Ernst Thälmann, the former leader of the German Communist party.

To avoid confusion with a similarly named development in Berlin’s north, the one-party state in 1986 changed Thälmannplatz to Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse, the name of the German Democratic Republic’s first prime minister.

The station was given its current name on the first anniversary of German reunification, 3 October 1991. Activists have proposed the street could be renamed after Anton Wilhelm Amo, Prussia’s first black academic.