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Germany: Should Vladimir Putin's Golden Book entries remain?

Marina Jung
March 16, 2023

The Golden Books of some German cities contain entries by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Should they stay there or be removed?

https://p.dw.com/p/4Oh5Q
An entry in a Golden Book covered by a picture
Peaceful protest: Vladimir Putin's signature has been covered up by a child's drawingImage: Gemeinde Aying

Residents in Wiesbaden, in the state of Hesse, were recently witness to a political scandal. While introducing the program for the International May Festival, theater director Uwe Eric Laufenberg announced that Russian-Austrian soprano Anna Netrebko would be appearing at the event.

"Miss Netrebko has done nothing wrong. There is a widespread hysteria seeking to blame her for something, a sort of moral hysteria. If we were to take every single person who let themselves be photographed next to Putin and…"

Mid-sentence, he interrupted his speech and turned to Wiesbaden's mayor, Gert-Uwe Mende, and asked: "So the same goes for the city of Wiesbaden and its golden guestbook? Is Putin still in it? Maybe someone could get it removed?"

Used for prominent visitors to commemorate their visit, Wiesbaden's Golden Book indeed has an entry by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was also signed by former Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two state leaders met in Wiesbaden in 2007 for what used to be annual consultations between both governments.

'Back then, the world was still in order'

Putin also left a note in other Golden Books of other cities across Germany, such as Hannover, Hamburg, and Berlin. In the Bavarian town Aying, near Munich, the very first entry in the golden guestbook was written on October 11, 2006 and begins with the words: "Visit by His Excellency, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin…"

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) surrounded by a group of men
Putin's entry in Aying's Golden Book was the first to appear in 2006Image: Frank Mächler/ dpa/picture-alliance

Asked if he regrets this entry now, Aying's mayor, Peter Wagner, said: "When we bought the book back then and had it signed, the world was still in order. We still had good ties with Russia. Looking back, I don't approve of him being in our guestbook. I also do not approve of what Putin is doing in Ukraine."

But Wagner also pointed out that other cities had much older books that included historical entries by figures such as Adolf Hitler. Frankfurt's Golden Book was signed not only by Hitler, but also by other Nazi figureheads such as Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler.

After World War II, a controversial debate unfolded over how to deal with these entries. Some suggested removing them. But they stayed, and as time passed, other historical figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama added their names to the book. In a symbolic gesture, however, 13 pages were left empty following the Nazi-signed pages.

Wagner has suggested leaving Putin's entry in the town's guestbook. "It's a chronicle of contemporary events," he argued, adding that it would be unseemly to destroy selected pages of the book. For now, however, they have covered Putin's entry with a picture drawn by a Ukrainian child refugee.

Entries by Philipp Lahm and Princess Victoria

According to Aying's mayor, other prominent figures have also signed the community's Golden Book, including Bavaria's former prime minister, Edmund Stoiber, and Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden, as well as honorary citizens of the town. The former capitan of Germany's national football team, Philipp Lahm, married in Aying and also took the time to sign the guestbook.

But it's an ironic twist of fate that Aying never actually had direct ties with Russia. The town only bought its Golden Book in anticipation of Putin's visit in 2006.

Back then, Bavaria's state government wanted to organize a traditionally Bavarian evening for their Russian guest and were looking for a suitable venue for the occasion.

"They didn't want to stay in Munich, and Aying is only about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away from the state capital. We offer good food, so they decided to hold the event here," mayor Wagner recalled. "We didn't have a Golden Book, so we went out and bought one."

About six centimeters (2.4 inches) thick and bound in leather, the Golden Book is kept in the mayor's office and is not available for public viewing. He says there are not many entries yet — apparently only 20 pages have been filled so far.

Dresden: 'A dark time in the city's history'

Vladmir Putin (left) alongside former Chancellor Angela Merkel
Putin has visited Dresden twice since becoming president but did not sign the city's Golden BookImage: Peer Grimm/ZB/picture alliance

The city of Dresden has a different way of handling its Golden Book. Whoever is interested can view it on specially designated dates. Many are curious to read what the actress Cate Blanchett wrote, for example. She visited the city in 2022 while on set for the movie "Tar" for which she received an Oscar nomination.

What Dresden does not have, however, is a guestbook entry by Putin. The city's press spokesman, Kai Schulz, said he found this astonishing. "Putin spent many years in Dresdem working for the KGB. He married his first wife here, and his first child was born here."

After becoming president, Putin visited Dresden twice. "On each occasion, Putin was accepting an invitation extended by the federal government. So a visit to the city hall would not necessarily have been part of his agenda," Schulz said.

When asked whether he thought it was a good thing that Putin had not left his name in Dresden's Golden Book, Schulz said: "If Putin had left an entry, then that would only mean that he had visited the city and signed the city's guestbook. The categories 'good' or 'bad' are irrelevant in this regard."

He added that their Golden Book did contain a number of entries by representatives from St. Petersburg, one of Dresden's partner cities. While Dresden had not cancelled the partnership outright, there were currently no joint activities underway given the current situation in Ukraine.

Dresden's Golden Book contains about 500 entries. The first appeared in 1949. Historians believe earlier guestbooks were lost during World War II.

"A Golden Book is a testament to the times. It is completely natural that it would also reflect dark chapter's of a city's history," Schulz explained. "Municipal history and Golden Books are a way of showing how the world changes, and how wars can be overcome."

This article was translated from German.

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