Living on a Communist Avenue
If you want to know what a society values, or valued at one time, look at which historical figures it decides to commemorate in public. Often these values change over time and lead to interesting if not intense public debates. My home country of the United States is currently going through something of an identity crisis in this regard.
Statues memorializing Confederate generals and politicians, once considered to be patron saints of the great “Lost Cause,” as the Southern secession effort of the American Civil War was known, are now (not unjustifiably) coming under heavy criticism in rapidly diversifying environment. But the U.S. that has had to deal with a controversial history.
Germany, my new home country, has its own past demons to wrestle with. The reckoning with this dark history is well known with regard to the Holocaust, but the history of dealing with Germany’s Communist history seems to be more mixed. Indeed, many streets, for example, are still named after Communist heroes (like Karl Marx Strasse).
This does not exclude my street.
I recently moved into an apartment on a street named Erich Weinert Strasse in the Prenzlauer Berg borough of Berlin, which part of Soviet East Berlin during the GDR days. I was immediately curious about who this Erich Weinert guy was and what he had done to earn himself a street name.
It turns out he was a lifelong Marxist activist and artist who spent much of his professional life spreading the propaganda of the Soviet Union. Here’s a bit from his Wikipedia page:
Weinert started writing in 1921. From the very beginning his poems were thoroughly anti-imperialistic. In the second half of the 1920s, Weinert’s work leaned towards portraying the struggles of the German proletariat. In 1929, he joined the Communist Party of Germany. Weinert’s works were always political, and the role of political poet, agitator, and satirist he gradually assumed are best seen in his collections Theater of the Apes (1925) and Erich Weinert Speaks (1930).
It goes on:
Following the fascist coup d’etat, Weinert fled to Switzerland. From 1933 to 1935 Weinert, with his wife and daughter, Marianne Lange-Weinert, went into exile in the Saar protectorate. From there he then went to Paris, France so he would be able to arrive in the Soviet Union. Working from the USSR, he published an anthology of anti-fascist poems in 1934, entitled ‘The Cobblestones and The Day Will Come’. He became a member of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War from 1937 to 1939, where he was active as front correspondent. He turned his experience on the Spanish front into poems, which were published in the book Camaradas (1951).
After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Weinert sided with the Soviets and began creating propaganda to encourage soldiers in the Wehrmacht to abandon their positions using methods such as poems printed on handbills that were thrown off behind the German lines as well as making pleas to them via the radio. In 1943 he was selected as the president of the National Committee for a Free Germany. Once again the time spent on the front lines found literary expression. Weinert published his war diary under the title ‘Remember Stalingrad’ in 1943. Two short stories — ‘Death for the Fatherland’ and ‘Expediency’ — came out in 1942. A collection of leaflet poems written during the war came out in 1944 as ‘Against the Real Enemy’. In 1947, he also published ‘Chapter Two of World History: Poems About the Land of Socialism’, an anthology of poems about the Soviet Union.
Later, according to the same Wiki page, Weinert served as the vice president of the National Education Central Administration in East Germany, and was awarded something called the National Prize, presumably a Soviet-based award, in 1949 and again in 1952.
Given my ignorance of a more detailed understanding of Weinert’s life and work, I’m won’t comment directly on the validity of a street bearing his name.
However, I am very well informed about the crimes of the regime he apparently dedicated his life to supporting. Some estimates place the dead of totalitarian communism at over 100 million dead.
It seems to me that someone who supported a regime and an ideology like that shouldn’t have a street named after them — even if he or she was against an equally hideous belief system like fascism.