A referendum on Sunday in Berlin will decide whether to name a street after a famous student protest leader of the 1960s. The issue has polarized opinion and rekindled memories of a turbulent chapter in German history.
The fight goes on
On Sunday, residents of Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district will go to the polls to settle a simmering controversy over the renaming of a street after Rudi Dutschke, a protest leader of the 1960s. The emotive issue has polarized public opinion and brought into focus old political animosities.
"Germany and Berlin need a Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse, because it's a very important symbol of what we are today and which political stream has made things happen in postwar Germany," said Peter Unfried, deputy editor-in-chief of left-leaning daily taz who has spearheaded a campaign to rename the street.
"What we are today -- a freer, more liberal society -- is partly due to 1968 and Rudi Dutschke," he said.
Dutschke in 1968 during a protest in Berlin
Born in 1940, Dutschke emerged as one of the most charismatic personalities of West Germany's student movement, which pitted children against their parents and anti-communists against leftists in the 1960s.
A student of sociology at West Berlin's Free University, Dutschke was an influential theoretician in left-wing circles and active in organizing street protests -- that shook up West German society --
against the so-called "establishment."
The high-profile Dutschke was shot and seriously injured in 1968 and moved to London to recover. Years later, he returned to West Germany -- and life on the political stage. Shortly before his unexpected death in a bathtub in December 1979 -- which was thought to have been related to injuries sustained during his shooting -- he became actively involved with the ecologically minded Greens, who established themselves as a political party three weeks later.
Right vs. left
During the Cold War, the Greens and the left-wing taz manned the one side of West Germany's ideological battles and the conservative Christian Democratic party (CDU) and the right-wing Axel Springer publishing house the other.
Axel Springer and the taz weren't just political enemies. They were and still are close neighbors, too. Their offices are located just doors away from each other on Kochstrasse (Koch Street), the street at the center of the renaming fight.
It was on this street that angry student protests erupted in 1968 after Dutschke was shot and seriously wounded. Students blamed Springer's papers for inflaming public opinion against them and said the man who shot Dutschke was influenced by views expressed by Springer tabloid Bild.
Springer built the tower block next to the Wall as a "beacon of democracy"
Kochstrasse is something of a showcase of 20th century Germany history. Himmler's Gestapo headquarters on Wilhelmstrasse was just meters away from the street, at its far western end. A few blocks to the east, it bisects Friedrichstrasse next to what became Checkpoint Charlie, the US-controlled border crossing to communist East Berlin, and remnants of the Wall. The taz is located a few buildings further east.
Another couple blocks down the road, at the intersection to Axel-Springer-Strasse, stands the tower block the eponymous and powerful publisher built for the Berlin office of his Hamburg-based company.
After naming its building Rudi Dutschke House in 1993, the taz started a campaign to rename Kochstrasse.
What's in a name?
In 2005, the local assembly in Friedrichhain-Kreuzberg, dominated by the Social Democrats and the Green party, decided to rename Kochstrasse as Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse -- to the conservatives' horror.
"The state shouldn't honor a person who was in favor of the dissolution of the state," said Timo Husein, 26, head of the CDU's youth organization in the district. "He wasn't a democrat in a legal sense. He propagated violence against property. Someone who uses violence to reach his aims isn't an appropriate person to be honored."
Husein said the renaming would mean that the street's 1,000 residents would have to have their personal ID cards changed. In addition, the area's estimated 700 businesses, from snack bars to a national insurance company, would have to shell out around 350,000 euros ($450,000) to reprint signs, stationary and business cards.
Backed by the local CDU, Husein's youth group collected the 10,000 signatures necessary to take the question of renaming the street to the ballot box. Fifteen percent of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg's voters, around 25,000 people, must vote in the referendum Sunday to put a stop to the name change.
"A sort of poetic justice"
It was a no-brainer for Husein's conservative youth group to take up the fight against Dutschke.
"Dutschke is naturally an opponent," he said. It's not about changing a law on sales tax, which is rather boring. It's really about ideology, about left and right, and the left sees it that way, too."
The taz named its building Rudi Dutschke House in 1993
Husein was hopeful Dutschke would lose in the referendum, though he admitted it was hard for conservatives to have an effect in the only electoral precinct in Germany ever to have directly elected a Green candidate to the federal parliament, in 2005.
"But that's no reason not to try," he said.
Meanwhile, the taz's Unfried was fairly certain Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg would go for Dutschke. But whatever the outcome of the poll, he was pleased that the campaign seemed to have raised consciousness of Dutschke, a symbol, he said, for fighting for a better society.
"Not many people know that they changed Lindenstrasse to Axel-Springer-Strasse, which not everyone appreciates, especially people on the liberal, progressive side of the spectrum," Unfried said.
"It'll be a sort of poetic justice to have Dutschke Boulevard with Axel Springer Street."