Exploring Germany’s Colonial Past

Annick Hagemann joins Joshua Kwesi Aikins for a local tour through Germany’s colonial past…

When I walk the streets of Berlin, I often wonder who they are named after. After all, every name has a story behind it even though most of the time we walk past oblivious.

After large events such as World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall, many streets were renamed as they no longer reflected the principles of new governments or regimes; prominent examples include Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (which had been called Horst-Wessel-Platz after the Nazi martyr), Karl-Marx-Allee (which was Stalin Allee up until the death of the eponymous Soviet leader) and Danziger Strasse, which was formerly Dimitroff Strasse.

But while a process of reflection took place regarding this more recent past, Berlin still struggles to acknowledge its colonial history. Who walks across the Oberbaumbrücke into Kreuzberg on a Friday or Saturday night, for example, and asks themselves how the nearby May-Ayim-Ufer received its name? Would people know that until recently this street was named after an infamous German colonialist?

Or how many know the story behind Mohrenstrasse, let alone wonder if such a name conforms to the democratic principles of the German constitution? Most of us would not consider such things, and neither did I until I took a tour called Dauerkolonie Berlin with Joshua Kwesi Aikins.

The tour formed part of Ballhaus Naunynstrasse’s event series We Are Tomorrow to mark the 130th Anniversary of the Congo Conference which took place in Berlin in 1884-5.

The tour begins in the “Afrikanisches Viertel” in Wedding. The name reflects the ambitious ideas of Carl Hagenbeck, an investor who intended to establish a permanent “African Theme Park” in the area that exhibited animals and people imported from the German colonies.

Photo by Annick S. Hagemann.

As shocking as this might sound today, Hagenbeck had already toured his show around Germany and had received a lot of attention; indeed, the local zoo in Hamburg still bears his name today. World War I put an end to his plans, but the name for the area stuck.

Later, mostly during the Nazi regime, many streets were named after German “protectorates” (a euphemism for colonies), amongst them Togo and Cameroon. The names were intended to remind people of Germany’s short-lived but “glorious” days as a colonial power. Ghanastrasse forms an exception here, since it was only named in 1958 to mark Ghana’s independence from colonial rule.

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The first stop on the tour is Swakopmunder Strasse, which is named after a city in Namibia. There is a lot of history behind this name; as Joshua explains, what happened here was a prelude to what was to come in Nazi Germany.

The Germans erected their first concentration camps in Namibia, then known as German South West Africa, in response to Herero and Nama protesting against their oppression by German colonialists. Between 1904-1908, 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people were exterminated under German colonial rule.

In the concentration camps, medical trials were conducted on Herero and Nama by Eugen Fischer, a so-called doctor who later continued his experiments on Jews during the Third Reich.

To our horror, Joshua proceeds to show us a postcard which was sent back to Germany from Namibia depicting a photo in which German soldiers are preparing Herero skulls for transport back to Germany. On the postcard you can read quite clearly the following information roughly translated into German:

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A box of Herero skulls was recently packaged by German troops and sent to the Pathological Institute of Berlin where they are to be used for scientific measurements. Herero women prepared the skulls for transport by cleaning all skin residue from the skulls with glass. The skulls are by hanged or killed Hereros.

Many of the skulls can still be found today in the archives of the Charite Hospital, though some were returned to a delegation of Herero in 2011. Whilst the family of Lothar von Trotha, who played an important role in the genocide, has apologised to the descendants of the Herero, the German government regrets what happened but still refuses to take responsibility.

We continue to Togostrasse, where Joshua draws our attention to a modernist building conceived by Bruno Taut, a progressive German architect who reinvented social housing for the working classes. Each flat has a balcony and a view into a communal garden, which at the beginning of the 20th Century – when working class families often lived cheek by jowl, confined to one room – was an innovative concept.

The lack of adequate housing led for many to tuberculosis and an early death. When the Nazis came to power, they were eager to demolish or at least hide such progressive architecture and built a new ensemble of houses in Nachtigalplatz which reflected a more “German” approach. Just like many other streets in the area, Nachtigalplatz was named after a German colonial “explorer”.

A short distance across from Nachtigalplatz, we encounter Petersallee, named after Carl Peters – an infamous colonialist, who even during his life time attracted a lot of controversy. He was responsible for several atrocities in the then so-called German protectorates.

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Having spent three years in Britain studying British colonialism, Peters returned to Germany to found the Society for German Colonisation, later renamed the German East Africa Company. Its aim? To secure as many “protectorates” as possible for the German Reich.

Peters invaded Usagara, Nguru, Useguha und Ukami, threatening and intimidating local leaders to concede territory. Later these colonised areas became known as German East Africa (an area which included today’s Rwanda, Burundi and parts of Tanzania).

Word of his brutality reached the German Kaiserreich, after Peters had caught his concubine slave Jagodia sleeping with another slave; not only did he hang them both,  he also had their villages razed to the ground. Locally known as mkono wa damu or “bloody hand”, he was also referred to as “Hängepeters” back in Berlin.

A debate led by August Bebel was held in the Reichstag denouncing the brutal activities of Peters and other colonialists. Peters eventually had his title as Reichskommisar withdrawn – only to be later rehabilitated by Kaiser Wilhelm.

In the 1980s, local residents protested against their street honouring a colonialist who had commited such atrocities. After some consideration, the local authorities decided to name the street after Dr. Hans Peters, a Stadtverordneter, thus avoiding having to re-name the street.

Nearby, we walk into allotments also known as Schrebergärten or Kolonien in Germany. Until recently, the entrance to the allotments was marked by a sign stating Dauerkolonie Togo e.V,  which roughly translates as “permanent colony Togo”.

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Established in 1939, the Nazis intentionally used the ambiguity of the word to recall Germany’s days as a colonial power. The fact that the sign was only recently changed either suggests that the offensive irony of the name was completely lost on the local residents or they actually did not see anything wrong with it.

On the initiative of local politicians who were made aware of the sign during one of Joshua’s tours, the sign was finally replaced to read Dauerkleingarten Togo e.V.

The tour continues past the Reichstag on to Wilhelmstrasse 77 where the former Palais des Reichskanzlers once stood. Today, you would never guess that some of the most important decisions affecting the African continent and its future were taken here.

Without the privately financed plaque erected by the Afrika Forum e.V. Berlin, you could miss it entirely since there is nothing left of the old palace; in its place stands a gloomy, purpose-built block of flats. Upon the invitation of Bismark, the Berlin Conference took place here from 15th November 1884 to 26th February 1885.

Its aim was to reach agreement on European colonisation and trade in Africa between the then imperial powers. The resulting General Act of the Berlin Conference laid the foundation for the “scramble for Africa” and the complete division of the continent; Africans were the subject of the conference but not represented.

Right around the corner from Wilhelmstrasse, we encounter the entrance to U-Bahnhof Mohrenstrasse. There is a lot of speculation about how the street received its name, but there were definitely military barracks on the street that housed Janissaries and also people from Africa.

Mohrs were servants or slaves at European courts: the etymology is both Greek and Latin. Whilst the Latin maurus means dark, the greek moros refers to someone who is stupid. Due to its historical context and the fact that it defines a person by their skin colour, its use is generally considered derogatory and racist.

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There is an ongoing campaign for re-naming the street and the U-Bahn, but so far with little success – lack of funding is usually given as a reason. However, as Joshua points out, this argument loses its strength when you consider that the U-Bahn stop was renamed three times in the last 100 years, most recently in 1991 when its name was changed from Otto Grotewohl (first prime minister of the GDR) to Mohrenstrasse.

From Mitte, we move on to Kreuzberg and the May-Ayim-Ufer formerly known as Gröben-Ufer. Previously named after Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, a colonialist who founded Brandenburg’s first colony Groß Friedrichsburg (1683-1720 in today’s Ghana), the street now honours May Ayim, an Afro-German poet, educator and activist who wrote the first academic study written about Afro-Germans and their history in Germany.

She also published a book called Farbe bekennen and cofounded the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD), an organisation uniting Afro-Germans and actively combating racism in Germany. Her poetry exemplifies the pain that thoughtless and racist language and the colonial legacy can cause, leaving people in our midst feeling alienated, caught between worlds and never wholly accepted.

The events series “We are tomorrow” and the tour by Joshua Kwesi Aikins aims to show us a new perspective and make us think about how we view our own history and identity and that of others. It is a fascinating insight into a piece of history that has been disregarded for far too long and deserves much wider attention.

All images by Annick S. Hagemann

Berlin Postkolonial offer regular tours of the Afrikanische Viertel. Small groups wishing to book should contact Joshua via the website to arrange a time; a 3-hour tour costs €10 per person. Ballhaus Naunynstrasse is also planning to expand on the above tour in the summer combining location based performances with local history – click here to contact them or to subscribe to their newsletter.

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