The symbolism of street names

The symbolism of street names

Thinking further about Vienna, anti-Semitism, and denial, one need only consider the long controversy and ongoing passive resistance to change regarding the portion of the Ringstrasse formerly (and still) known as Dr Karl Lueger Ring. The Ring, for those who don’t know Vienna, is the very large avenue that encircles the entire innere Stadt, or inner city, or 1st district of Vienna. During the waning decades of the Habsburg empire under Karl Josef I, the old fortified city walls were demolished to make way for a magnificent ring of opulent new buildings designed in Historical Style to look old – and impressive. The Gothic Rathaus (City Hall) competed with the neo-classical Parliament building next door, and the gorgeous Baroque-style Burgtheater and Staatsoper further on along the Ring. The effect, as Edmund de Waal wrote in “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” is not as disjointed as it may seem – in fact, to walk the entire Ring, or ride it aboveground in the Strassenbahn (streetcar), is an aesthetic experience of romantic pleasure. It evokes not only prewar Europe, but premodern Europe, and between the largest imperial buildings the rest is filled in with block after block of palaces that echoed the grandeur of the monarchy – built by financiers, lesser nobility, and banks – over half of which were designed and occupied by entrepreneurial Jews who had put their trust in the promise of assimilation. (The Palais Ephrussi, one such palais described in detail in de Waal’s book, can be seen in this photo across the street. See also my earlier blog post about both the book, which is wonderful, and the palace.) Here is a view of the university seen from one of the few remaining parts of the old city wall across the street, the Molker Bastei (more about that in a forthcoming blog post):
University from Molker Bastei
Dr. Karl Lueger, a strongly Austrian nationalist, pro-Catholic, and virulently anti-Semitic politician, and founder of the “Christian Social Party,” became mayor in 1897 (with the support of Pope Leo XIII over Karl Josef’s objections). Hitler, while studying art in Vienna, took Lueger as his model for leadership. Lueger c 1897 by Ludwig Grillich In April 2012, after long debate, his portion of the Ring was renamed Universitätsring. A statue of him remains in Karl Lueger Platz. This quote from the Wikipedia article about Lueger explains the controversy well:
“In Vienna, Lueger has a square named after him, at least two statues were erected in his honour and until April 2012 a section of the Ringstraße bore his name. It has been very difficult to decide what to do with monuments honoring historical figures whose reputation has been widely called into question as Europeans (and others) reflect on the historical background to the holocaust. With the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 street names carrying Jewish names or the names of pacifists were changed. After World War II, Austria started a full-scale program of de-Nazification on both cultural and topographical levels. Nazified street signs were torn down and their names changed back from Nazi to Habsburg heroes. [9] Lueger’s monuments present a difficult case because they are genuinely local, yet he was inspirational for the Nazis. For some, the Lueger monuments show that Vienna has sacrificed its obligations to war crimes victims in exchange for keeping its nostalgic appeal as the grand Imperial City.” – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Lueger.
Quite a few monuments to Lueger remain across the city, including statue in Karl Lueger Platz, an oak tree in the central cemetery, and a graffiti-smeared chapel that Lueger relocated to a park near my flat along the canal.
Lueger chapel
And there are still many maps and signs, like this one at the Währinger Strasse entrance to the Schottentor UBahn. Some suggest that we cannot erase history, and these monuments need to remain to remind us of who and what we have been. And some still defend Lueger as having done much good for the city of Vienna, and being more complex than he is portrayed, and so on. My own view of the street name change is that it was the right thing to do, because in the words of the good English hymn, “time makes ancient good uncouth,” and a street name not only remembers but confers honor. Lueger’s history may be complex, but his impact is far too associated with hatred, bigotry, and extremism to merit such an honor. (Following the same reasoning, the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg petitioned to change the street that runs through the middle of its campus from Confederate Avenue to Seminary Ridge – which was the actual name of the street at the time of the first day of the Battle on that very spot in 1863). At the same time, as I argued (contrary to the theologian Miroslav Volf in his book “The End of Memory”), there must be monuments to the dead and to atrocities even after the Eschaton, because we are who we are, we are formed, not only by our joys but also our suffering. In my theology, I believe that there is an eschatological hope that points to suffering transformed – but never erased or forgotten. How in our cities and public spaces can we create monuments than help us remember the shadows of the past without perpetuating their veneration? The German word Denkmal is perhaps better – literally: a time for thinking.

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About pcooperwhite

Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York NY
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