Streetscapes – Mozart, Marx and a Dictator

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Street names reveal our past. Romans, the kaisers, socialists: All of them left behind traces of their presence. Hidden patterns in the 450,000 German street names.

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Street names are stories of life. They tell us something about how the people in a given place work and live, what they believe in and their dreams. There are more than a million streets and squares in Germany. ZEIT ONLINE has compiled a database of the roughly 450,000 different names used. Some street names are used hundreds of times and others only once. But none of the names were chosen at random. Each individual name reveals something about how the lives and attitudes of people in Germany have transformed over the centuries. Taken together, they also shed light on the things we like to remember and what we would prefer to forget.
Although there are countless route planners and navigational devices out there that can be used to find individual streets or addresses, this new database is a novelty for its ability to allow users to analyze all German street names using search terms and to generate a graphic illustration of their regional distribution.

What things does Germany tend to commemorate in its street names? Take the example of last year's terrorist attack on a Christmas market in a Berlin square located next to the city's famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Thanks to the attack, everyone in Germany knows today that the square is named Breitscheidplatz. But how did it get its name?

Street names are an expression of the mindset of a given period and that's still true today. But the names don't solely express the successes of their respective eras. They can also be reflective of a society's deficits. Just under 70 years ago, the new German constitution stated that, "Men and woman shall have equal rights." But if you look at a street map of Hamburg today, it's difficult to discern anything approaching equality. The city has named 2,500 streets after men, but not even 400 carry the name of a woman.

In East Germany, street names reflected socialist doctrine, with terms used like Bodenreform Street, christened after the German Democratic Republic's land reform laws that saw the expropriation of private property. German-Soviet Friendship Street. Solidarity Street. On top of that, of course, came the socialist personality cult, with names like Marx and Engels, German Communist Party co-founder Karl Liebknecht or former Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, who was killed on Hitler's orders at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Many of these street names were changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. But in some towns, the old ideals persist today. You can still find a street these days called Thälmannpionierestraße, so named after the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organization, East Germany's youth organization for children aged 6 to 14. A town called Wiesenau in the eastern state of Brandenburg still even has a street named after Klement Gottwald, the Stalinist dictator of Czechoslovakia.

At the end of the 18th century, French revolutionaries recognized that street names could be used for the purpose of political communication. Ever since, those in power have been using them as a means for perpetuating their propaganda. This is particularly visible when it comes to the streetscape of Berlin, a city shaped by an empire, the Weimar Republic and two dictatorships.

Traces of all these periods can still be found today. Even if many of these names were later eradicated on a large scale, there are still remnants. In the streetscape across Germany, all street signs bearing the names of leading figures in the Nazi era have been removed. You won't find any signs for an Adolf Hitler Street or Hermann Göring Square. But especially in western Germany, you can still find streets with names or terms that were assigned by the Nazis and typify their ideology.

But the era of grand ideologies seems to be behind us. Today, people in many places have retreated to more harmless subjects for their street names. Trees, birds, composers and poets tend to characterize the street names of many newly built areas, although the trend isn't entirely new. People began using those kinds of terms at the end of the 19th century, when industrialization fueled large-scale growth in the cities. In total, we found around 20,000 thematically linked groups of streets. Baumviertel (or tree quarters) and Vogelquartiere (bird quarters) can be found with particular frequency.

What are the most common names used in groups of streets?

Most groups of streets are named after trees, birds, composers and poets. The terms that appear most frequently within these thematically grouped streets are illustrated below.

But even nondescript names refer to something that is key to Germany's identity. If you go by the number of times the word comes up in street names, it isn't the oak, but the birch that is the most archetypal German tree. And the Germans' favorite composer is apparently an Austrian: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Originally, street names were meant as descriptive directional aids. Deichstrasse led along the dike, Kirchgasse went to the church and Leipziger Chausee pointed the way to Leipzig. As the world changed over the centuries, many of these names survived – and today they bear witness to a long-lost past.

There are many more patterns hidden in the data. Help us find them! In the search field, you can enter terms of your own and then look at the pattern generated. We're excited to see what you find!

Authors and Contributors


Methods and Sources

Streets and squares are an archive of both language and history. We suspected that their names would reveal patterns, and we wanted to make them visible. Doing such a thing is impossible using conventional map tools because none of them will show you all of the streets and squares of the same name at the same time.

The foundation of our tool is OpenStreetMap, a map wiki where volunteers collect information on all streets around the world. Using that information, the Karlsruhe-based service provider Geofabrik created a dataset for us including all streets and squares in Germany (current as of Oct. 10, 2017). It includes the respective street names, the postal codes and communities through which the streets lead, and the precise geometry of the route taken by the street. Geofabrik also combined multiple data points from OpenStreetMap to create a single, coherent data object for each street accurately reflecting its geometry.

Using this data, ZEIT ONLINE programmed a searchable database. By doing so, we discovered some fascinating patterns in the distribution of the 450,000 street names. They tell the story of almost forgotten artists and historical events, they shed light on obsolete economic structures and trade routes, on dialects and on idioms imported from abroad. Additionally, we identified groups of streets with thematically linked terms like the names of poets or types of animals. Beyond that, for example, we searched for all the possible endings to a street name, like Limes Road, Limes Way, Limes Alley or Limes Lane for discernible name components like -limes. All streets with the same root name were then tested to see if there were linked groups of streets on a local level. This enabled us to uncover other patterns.
For those wishing to perform a comprehensive analysis, we have made the underlying dataset available at no cost, under the user license ODbL 1.0. You can download the data here in GeoJSON format (206 MB). Given the amount of map details that are gathered by OpenStreetMap, errors are unavoidable. In addition to spelling mistakes or even missing streets, there may also be instances in which OpenStreetMap employees have inadvertently classified hiking paths as official streets, for example. Should you find a mistake, you can report it to OpenStreetMap or correct it yourself.

Translators: Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey