by Staff Writers
Berlin July 31, 2014
Field Marshal Hindenburg, a decorated hero of World War I but also the president who paved the way for Hitler's rise, still divides Germany 80 years after his death.
The legacy of the stocky and moustachioed Prussian war horse and statesman is as complicated as his full name -- Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg.
Hindenburg became a national hero in 1914 as the winner of the crucial battle of Tannenberg against the Russian army. In the years after that victory, German town squares, avenues and streets were named after him.
Many cities declared him an honorary citizen, and his name was later used for a giant zeppelin airship, now best remembered for spectacularly exploding after a transatlantic journey in New Jersey in 1937.
But Hindenburg is also the man who, despite a documented personal animosity against Hitler, went on to appoint the Nazi leader as chancellor on January 30, 1933.
It was a move that struck the death knell of the Weimar Republic of which Hindenburg had been president since 1925.
The question that keeps flaring in Germany is whether his memory should be honoured, or whether he must be primarily remembered as an enabler of Nazi terror, world war and the Holocaust.
In July, artist Wolfram P. Kastner and two other activists gave their own answer to that question by screwing the head off a Hindenburg bronze bust in the Bavarian small town of Dietramszell south of Munich.
They stuck a Nazi swastika-sticker on the marshal's right eye and left it lying under a wooden cross on the nearby property of a family where Hindenburg used to spend his summer holidays.
Next to the disembodied head they placed a sign reading "No place for Nazi backers".
- 'Multi-faceted personality' -
For several years, in the lead-up to this year's centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Hindenburg, who died on August 2, 1934, has featured in often heated political debates in Germany.
In the early summer, the "Hindenburg case" occupied the parliament of the city-state of Berlin, which had on April 20, 1933 named the marshal its 58th "honorary citizen".
The 59th, who was named the same day, was Hitler.
But even though the Nazi tyrant's name was struck off the list in December 1948, Hindenburg's remained, to the ire of some politicians.
"One hundred years after the start of the murderous First World War, it is time to strike from Berlin's honour roll the militarist who paved the way for Hitler," pleaded Wolfgang Brauer, of the far-left Die Linke party.
But the conservative Christian Democrats and centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), opposed the motion.
Social Democratic lawmaker Alex Lubawinski notably described the marshal as a "multi-faceted personality" and also called him a "democrat".
Asked by AFP, the head of the SPD parliamentary group in Berlin, Torsten Schneider, did not wish to comment, while a spokesman said the group was "continuing to discuss the issue".
- 'Cleansing the past' -
Other German cities long ago purged Hindenburg's name from their maps.
In 2012, the northwestern city of Muenster decided to rename its Hindenburg square, following a petition with over 15,000 signatures and a referendum which the "anti-Hindenburg" camp won with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Cities that scrapped Hindenburg off their lists of honorary citizens include Dortmund, Halle, Kiel, Leipzig, Munich and Stuttgart.
Wolfram Pyta, a history professor at Stuttgart University who wrote a biography of Hindenburg, said he did not want to take sides.
But he believes Hindenburg was not, when he appointed Hitler as chancellor, a senile old man who was manipulated, as some historians have argued.
Hindenburg "always knew what he was doing," Pyta told conservative daily Die Welt.
"Behind Hitler's appointment ... he saw a chance to implement his vision of a 'national community', not only with the force of his presidential power, but with the support of an authoritarian government."
But he also said the emotional debate, concerning not just the legacy of Hindenburg, reflects a strong critical tendency in Germany concerning the nation's past.
In this regard, he believes Magdeburg, a city in formerly communist East Germany, acted in the most exemplary manner on the sensitive issue, by keeping Hindenburg among its honorary citizens for now while organising a symposium on the subject.
"It will also deal with the personalities who were chosen as honorary citizens in (East German) times," Pyta told AFP.
Some in Magdeburg argue that even divisive names should be kept, for the sake of the collective memory.
"If we cleanse all the street names of all personalities who have been shown to be less than pure democrats ... then we will end up sanitising our own past," Pyta said.
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