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Berlin: Uncomfortable Odonyms, Suspicious Streets

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford


An overlooked and mundane part of life for many, the problematising of street-names in cities has been witnessing a growing interest from anti-racist and decolonial activists in recent years. From the squares of Glasgow in Scotland to the renaming of places in post-Apartheid South Africa, street-names, or odonyms, are seen by many to have an impact on the sense of belonging and identity of citizens, shaping and perpetuating what these cities and countries most represent. However, arguments that name changes of streets, estates and buildings risks erasing the controversial histories of countries acts as a challenge to growing renaming movements. In this article, I will look to Berlin, a city with a famously contentious and troubled history from periods of Nazi, Allied Forces and Soviet rule, but also with lesser recognised connections to colonialism that still permeate the city’s urban fabric today.

With a current population of 3.7 million, Berlin has been the capital of Germany since the formation of the nation-state in 1871. From 1945 to 1989, the Berlin Wall prevented movement between the communist East, and the democratic West: the city was officially unified in 1990, with present-day Berlin being divided into twelve boroughs. Across these periods, Berlin experienced many name changes as the city’s streets and plazas became the public arena for the socio-political mood of the country. Nazi dictatorship had a significant but short-lived impact on Berlin’s street names, where a policy of "aryanyzing" (Arisierung) street names led to odonyms including Adolf-Hitler-Platz and Hermann-Goring-Strafie.

In the early post-War years, the divergence of East and West Berlin could be seen across many spheres, including street renaming policy. West Berlin began re-employing names that had been present before 1945 but without Nazi connotations, such as Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, and a variety of military figures; and East Berlin decided in 1951 to rename all streets after progressive scientists, artists, and prominent Communists. With the reunification of Berlin came another swathe of street renaming, often with contentious outcomes as East Berliners complained of being robbed of their identity as with is where the efforts were more concentrated. The use of personalised names such as poets, writers, musicians, victims of Nazism or communism, and non-personalised names such as natural objects and geographic places has acted as a solution to these tensions, yet there remains a key area in Berlin that has only recently been highlighted as a problematic area in the same way Nazi and Soviet odonyms have been viewed, bringing in questions of race and inclusiveness to this street renaming phenomenon.