In 1919 — after World War I had ended, the Hapsburg monarchy was abolished and the new state of Czechoslovakia declared independence — the Prague railway station, formerly named for Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, was renamed for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. And so it remained until the Nazis occupied Prague. They removed Wilson’s name from the station and destroyed a giant bronze statue of him with the inscription: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Through the postwar period, the station was simply known as the “Prague Main Station.” But after the communist regime collapsed in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Wilson’s name was restored, and a new statue of him was unveiled in 2011.
In other words, although debate over Wilson has newly exploded on U.S. college campuses — especially at Princeton, where students are denouncing their school’s former president as racist and demanding that his name be removed from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs – the name of America’s 28th president has been part of a controversial cycle of naming and renaming for nearly a century.
The Princeton protesters point to Wilson’s regressive stance on desegregation. In 1909, he discouraged a black student from applying to the school, saying it was “altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” And in 1918, he told African American leaders who came to the White House to denounce Jim Crow: “We all have to be patient with one another. Human nature doesn’t make giant strides in a single generation.”
Yet Wilson was impatient to bring about the lasting transformation of Europe all at once. Alluding to the American Civil War, he pronounced World War I to be “a war of emancipation — emancipation from the threat and attempted mastery of selfish groups of autocratic rulers.” His 14 points of January 1918 proposed an independent Poland and autonomy for the peoples of Hapsburg Austria-Hungary. (He discussed with his advisers whether the whole Hapsburg monarchy should simply “disappear” to make way for new national states.) At the end of the war, the self-determination he promoted was confirmed by the Paris peace treaties in which he played such an influential part.
For all this, he was regarded as a hero in Eastern Europe. He received warm thanks during the war from Prince Alexander of Serbia for endorsing the rights of small nations in a world of Great Powers. He was saluted by Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski: “You are the foster-father of a chiefless land. You are Poland’s inspired protector. For many a month the spelling of your name has been the only comfort and joy of a starving nation.” And Tomas Masaryk, who would become Czechoslovakia’s first president, wrote to Wilson, “Your name, Mr. President, as you have no doubt read, is openly cheered in the streets of Prague — our nation will forever be grateful to you and to the people of the United States.”
Historical reputations, however, are always in flux, and heroes can look different with the passing of time. When the names of statesmen are placed on the map, there is always the possibility of renaming as historical judgment shifts or the political wheel turns. And indeed, many of the statues, parks, streets and squares that were named in Wilson’s honor would be rechristened in the decades to come. The city briefly called Wilsonovo Mesto (Wilson City) became Bratislava when it was incorporated in Czechoslovakia. In Warsaw, the public square Plac Wilsona was renamed for the revolutionary Paris Commune during Poland’s communist period; it is once more Plac Wilsona today. Danish American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who created the presidential monument at Mount Rushmore, also sculpted a Woodrow Wilson monument for Wilson Park in Poznan, Poland, in the 1930s — but it was destroyed during the Nazi occupation. In Zagreb, Croatia, University Square became Woodrow Wilson Square in 1919, celebrating his role in the creation of Yugoslavia, but it was, predictably, renamed for Tito after World War II. Now, in post-communist Croatia, there is debate about whether Tito’s name should also be dropped. Wilson’s name persists on the Prague station, but Czechoslovakia (like Yugoslavia) no longer exists. Wilson himself did not live long enough to witness the collapse of the flawed peace settlement of 1918 over the next generation.
Naming and renaming in response to changing political circumstances has been common over the past century. Yet it would be worth keeping in mind that when nations rename cities, and when cities rename train stations, it is often with the hope that the public will forget the old name and its associations. Universities have a greater obligation to remember history, in all its complexity. Both naming and renaming can be rather blunt instruments for trying to come to terms with controversial legacies.