BERLIN | In this once-divided city where Ronald Reagan famously challenged the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall," a proposal to rename a public square or street in his honor has sparked heated debate over the U.S. president's role in Germany's recent past.
Ahead of the Feb. 6 centennial of Reagan's birth, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg surprised many here when he called on Berlin to pay tribute to the former U.S. president by renaming a square "Ronald-Reagan-Platz."
"Naming a street after such a great honorary citizen would be very welcome," Mr. Guttenberg told the German daily newspaper Bild in December.
However, his suggestion has proved to be complicated. The Berlin Senate passed along Mr. Guttenberg's call to the city's 12 districts, which hold the power to name streets and squares.
The first response came from the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district in former West Berlin, where the local center-right representatives suggested renaming a bustling, commercial square called Joachimstaler Platz. (Joachimstaler is an ancient Bohemian coin named after St. Joachim, who is regarded as the father of the Virgin Mary.)
The proposal was struck down quickly in a district vote. Local Social Democrats and Green Party members called the selection overtly political and provocative.
"That choice of place is by far the worst idea if one really wants to honor Ronald Reagan because the biggest demonstrations against President Reagan and his government took place right in Joachimstaler Platz during his 1987 Berlin visit," said Social Democrat Frederic Verrycken, who voted against the proposal. "It's really just senseless."
During his 1987 Berlin visit, Reagan delivered a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate and called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall, which the communist regime had erected in the 1960s to prevent citizens in the East from fleeing.
Frank Henkel, head of Berlin's center-right Christian Democratic Union, said it was time to seize a long-overdue opportunity and pay tribute to Reagan's memory. "Berlin has a lot to thank Ronald Reagan for. He was a great friend to our city and was undoubtedly one of the pioneers of Germany unity," he said.
Reagan was granted honorary citizenship in Berlin, the greatest award the city can bestow, in 1992. His portrait hangs in the Berlin City parliament building along with fellow honorees former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Mr. Gorbachev. During a ceremony to mark Reagan's 100th birthday, U.S. Ambassador Philip D. Murphy and parliament President Walter Momper laid a wreath in front of his photo.
A plaque with the words from Reagan's iconic Brandenburg Gate speech also hangs in the subway station by the city landmark.
Gunter Kolodziej, a spokesman for the Berlin Senate, said a Ronald Reagan street or square would make sense only if it were in proximity to the Brandenburg Gate. But real estate in and around the landmark is fully booked: Streets, squares and plazas have all been dedicated to other historical events and figures.
"There's virtually no possibility there to rename a street or a square," said Mr. Kolodziej.
Another U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, captured the city's heart with his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963. Today, the square where he spoke in front of Rathaus Schoeneberg, in former West Berlin, is called "John-F.-Kennedy-Platz."
For some Germans, Reagan's legacy is more complex. His actual impact on the fall of the Berlin Wall often has been debated — some historians say his 1987 speech was largely ignored at the time and had little influence on the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. The memory of Reagan as a champion of freedom and peace around the world also has been debated.
Historian and researcher Tim Geiger from the Institute of Contemporary History in Germany says the Reagan-era nuclear arms buildup, in particular, still troubles many Germans.
"He was always seen as the cowboy who would shoot faster than he thought," Mr. Geiger said. "[So] a negative connotation still remains in the collective German memory."
Nicole Ludwig, a member of Berlin's Green Party who voted against renaming Joachimstaler Platz after Reagan, said she clearly remembers hearing planes roaring over her bedroom as a teenager in East Berlin and fearing that one of those planes was carrying a nuclear bomb.
"That threat, because of the intense arms buildup back then, particularly for someone who grew up in the middle of East Berlin without any opportunity to get out, that's something I still feel and personally associate with that time," Ms. Ludwig said.
Reagan supporters, however, say his legacy is indisputable and that naming a square or street after him is the least Berlin can do to show its appreciation.
"I owe a lot to Ronald Reagan since my parents are both from socialist countries and I had the privilege to grow up in a liberal democracy," said Daniel Fallenstein, 28, who co-founded a Facebook page called Ronald Reagan Jugend, (Ronald Reagan Youth), with his friend Clemens Schneider a few weeks ago.
Mr. Schneider, 30, said his appreciation for Reagan is partly inherited. He first learned of the former U.S. president and his contributions to German history from his father, and he thinks some Germans are missing the bigger picture.
"Of course he made mistakes," said Mr. Schneider, a doctoral student of Catholic theology. "But at least he was somebody who had visions, and by having these visions he did change something definitely — the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain — and he also changed mentalities."
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