When I was in primary school, there were two street names in my hometown that I always got wrong. My teacher looked at me with disbelief and worry when I called the street next to the school Wolgaster Straße.
My geography skills improved dramatically after 1989, when the street names finally caught up with me. I grew up in the German Democratic Republic; call it DDR, GDR, or East Germany. The street names my teachers insisted on were Wilhelm Pieck Allee (Allee means promenade) and Otto Grotewohl Allee, named after the first President and Prime Minister of my dear republic. At home, I had learned to refer to these streets as Wolgaster Straße (Straße means street) and Anklamer Straße. Wolgast and Anklam are nearby cities. If you go to Wolgast, you leave the city via Wolgaster Straße. These street names are neat mnemonic devices; they point to nearby places. My pre-1989 teacher was not worried about my lack of knowledge. She must have known that the names I used were from a different time. For her, remembering the wrong name was worse than forgetting the (politically) correct name. After 1989, the old names returned.
Since then, I never got in trouble over street names again – that is, until I moved to Berlin for part of my sabbatical. It was my first time living in Berlin. My parents grew up in this city. In their twenties, they moved away. Their memories of the city are from the 1970s. When I talk about places, subway stops, and streets in Berlin, my mother often has no idea what I am talking about. Danziger Straße? Torstraße? Where would that be? These places are not even in the former West Berlin; they are in the East. My parents knew them and yet don’t recognize them. Danziger Straße used to be called Dimitroffstraße when my mother roamed these quarters.
The obsession with naming and renaming streets pre-dates the East German state. I recently finished reading Hans Fallada’s amazing novel Alone in Berlin (Jeder stirbt für sich allein), which tells a story of futile anti-Nazi resistance and includes a 1944 street map of Berlin. This 1944 map includes evidence of then new names, such as Hermann Göring Straße. The name did not last for long, of course. Nowadays the street is called Ebertstraße, after the Weimar Republic President Friedrich Ebert.
The current Nordbahnhof (Northern Station) was called Stettiner Bahnhof until 1950. Sections of the current Torstraße used to be Elsässer Straße (Alsace Street) und Lothringer Straße (Lorraine Street) between 1871 and 1951, when it became Wilhelm Pieck Straße, the name by which my mother should know it. In the wake of the wars with France, Alsace and Lorraine had been claimed as parts of Germany. These claims were embedded in the Berlin streetscape via street names.
It does not need explaining that names such as Hermann Göring Straße disappear. But what crimes, one might ask, did cities like Danzig and Stettin commit? They used to be German cities in a tenuous way. Now they are Gdansk and Szczecin, Polish cities. The Stettiner Bahnhof was the place to catch a train to Stettin when it was part of the German state. Today, trains leaving for Szczecin depart from the new Central Station (two hours, about 30 Euros, www.bahn.de). Nordbahnhof has been demoted to a simple subway stop.
The Berlin streetscape contains layers of references to a broader European geography and to political desires. Train stations were named after the destinations of departing trains. Streets were named after places in Europe (Bornholm, Stockholm and Oslo), after places that the roads were leading towards (Prenzlauer Allee, Potsdamer Straße), and as a way of making claims to cities and places as German (Stettin, Danzig, Elsaß, and Lothringen).
After the end of the Second World War, the East German state renamed streets and places to remind the people of newly important politicians, but also in order to erase the references to places that were no longer German. Thus, Leipziger Straße kept its name, but Danziger Straße became Dimitroffstraße. Likewise, Stettin station did not become Szczecin station, but Northern Station. It is as if it forgetting that Danzig and Stettin ever existed was preferable to remembering the new names of these cities.
Which of the East German names for streets and places remain? Nordbahnhof is still Nordbahnhof, Rosa Luxemburg Straße remains, but Dimitroffstraße and Wilhelm Pieck Straße ceased to be. Names that do not sound too “East German Communist” stayed: Nordbahnhof. Dimitroff and Pieck had to go. Rosa Luxemburg and Friedrich Engels, however, managed to stay.
Berlin is a city with layers of names, as I keep seeing in conversations with older people from East Germany. Recently, I started to feel old as well. I went to get a haircut, talked to the hairdresser, and found out that we grew up in the same city. I asked her which school she attended, and she said “Hanseschule.” I don’t know any school by that name. I know all the schools of the city by their official East German names; and only some of them by their post-transformation names. When I graduated, in 1997, the name changes were still fresh. So I asked the hairdresser about the name of her school before 1989. She didn’t know. That’s when I felt old. I had just asked the kind of question that my mother asks me when she tries to understand where I work, shop, eat, and visit people in Berlin.
My inability to translate from new to old names in Berlin (partially remedied by Wikipedia and a great online collection of old city maps), the hairdresser’s inability to remember the old name of her school, and my inability to remember the new name of her school made us speechless. We cannot talk about places that we have no common name for. Talking about cities, schools and streets in East Germany, you have to translate between old, new, and very old.
Beneath the surface, we East Germans of different generations speak different languages. We need to remember names that are no longer and names that are not yet. Such acts of memory and translation are crucial, for otherwise it is impossible to relate to the cities, the schools and the wider world of different generations.
A version of this article was first published in Deliberately Considered.