German Colonialism

Where the streets have bad names

Herero Südwestafrika
Cruel and inhumane treatment: A group from the Herero tribe in Africa in 1968. Source: Picture alliance

Berlin’s so-called African Quarter gets its moniker from the street names in this district, which were inspired by Germany’s former colonies in Africa. There is a Ghana Street, a Cameroon Street, and a Guinea Street. But Berlin also has some avenues with more controversial names, such as Lüderitz Street. It is named after Adolf Lüderitz, a prime mover behind German colonialism in Namibia in the 19th century who claimed a huge strip of the African coast for himself, doing dodgy deals with local tribal leaders.

Germany has acknowledged culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of members of certain Namibian tribes that resisted the German settlers. And now, after much campaigning, Lüderitz Street may be one of the streets to be renamed.

Victor Ankobea, a designer and tailor who was born in Ghana, has a boutique on Lüderitz Street. Against the backdrop of little black dresses with silver trims in his shop window, he frowns and says that renaming would mean changing everything “down to the business cards.”

“We have now occupied the edge of the Kalahari Desert and won’t let the Hottentotts out.”

A German soldier writing to his parents in 1904.

A little further down the road, Reneta Marinova, who runs a restaurant here, is similarly dismissive. Her business, called Zagreb, is on Nachtigal Place, a square named after Gustav Nachtigal, the German empire’s consul-general for Tunisia and commissioner for West Africa. “Who cares about that these days?” she asks. If the name of the square changes, she and her husband will have to deal with all sorts of local bureaucracy to change the restaurant’s official address, the tax returns, the catering permits. “Who will pay us for all the time spent doing that?” she complains.

For years now, Lüderitz Street, Nachtigal Place and Petersallee, or alley, have been the subject of controversy. In fact, the latter has already been renamed once. Instead of the brutal German colonialist, Carl Peters, the alley is apparently now named after Hans Peters, who fought against the Nazis in the 1940s and is thus an acceptable street patron in modern Germany. By contrast, Carl Peters was so cruel he was nicknamed “bloody hands.”

The renaming debate has dragged on so long in city-council circles that it has become a joke. Local commentators have also had their say. One cynical German author described the effort as renaming streets on behalf of the advocates of political correctness. Another essayist accused the committee of “a different kind of colonialism” saying that they had not sought the opinions of locals.

Gedenken an Völkermord in Namibia
Herero descendants in Namibia in 2015: The tribe filed a class action suit against the German government seeking reparations for genocide and land grabs. Source: DPA

The African Quarter’s layout was originally based on plans drawn up by an animal trader from Hamburg, Carl Hagenbeck, who died in 1913. He wanted to make the whole area an exhibition space for the spoils of German colonialism, including exotic animals and humans.

For a long time, Germany was not really all that focused on its colonial past; the country had worse atrocities to make amends for. But that has changed over the past decade or so, as more locals discover this aspect of the nation’s past. A recent exhibition at the German History Museum in Berlin laid bare some of the ghastly aspects German colonialism in Africa. Maps detailed how Prussian railroad regiments caused mass death while building a stretch of track in present-day Namibia. Thousands of members of the Herero tribe were forced to perform the work; two-thirds of them died.

Like many colonizers elsewhere, the Germans thought the native populations were “inferior and uncivilized,” a wall panel at the exhibition explained. So it was considered legitimate to “dispossess them, compel them to forced labor and exploit them.” The majority opinion was that the German empire, as it stood back then, deserved a “place in the sun.”

A letter that was part of another recent exhibition about Germany’s colonies at the Berlin Youth Museum in the neighborhood of Schoenberg, provides an example of that attitude. “We have now occupied the edge of the Kalahari Desert and won’t let the Hottentotts out,” a German soldier wrote to his parents in 1904. “The rainy season is over and the available water will evaporate rapidly. Either they come out and surrender – or they will die of hunger and thirst.” The letter was published in a local newspaper that same year, as though it was somehow appropriate to read over breakfast.

Nowadays, German treatment of the African tribes is called a genocide.

79713611 herero dpa
A herero officer commemorates the German genocide of his tribe, which started in 1904. Source: DPA

District administrators say the movement to rename the streets started in 2011 with a two-year project that made the neighborhood a place for cultural and historical education and commemoration. There were debates, exhibitions, projects at local schools and a workshop that tried to examine local racism. A new playground was to be built, although locals had to be convinced not to decorate solely with African stereotypes like giraffes and elephants.

At the same time, a number of organizations have sprung up to lobby for the streets’ name changes and unknown individuals started to paste stickers over the street signs, or otherwise deface them.

Some locals suggested an easier option. Why not just change the first names, they asked, as had been done with Hans Peters? Nachtigal could refer to the writer and theologian Johan Nachtigal and Lüderitz street could be an homage to the city of Lüderitz in Namibia. The Namibian city was actually also named after Adolf Lüderitz. But it would be a way to resolve the argument and make it easier on everyone.

That proposal was rejected. The city council then sent 2,800 letters to residents in the African Quarter asking them to propose new street names. In particular locals were encouraged to consider “females involved in post-colonial and emancipatory activities in Africa.”

There now exists a list with 196 names that contains everyone from South African singer Miriam Makeba, also known as the musician Mama Africa, as well as deceased African queen, Yaa Asantewaa. To reduce that list to six names was “extremely difficult,” says district councilor Sabine Weissler of the Green party. It took a committee eight meetings of three hours each to make that decision. “And we didn’t even have biscuits,” the city councilor notes.

Experts were also tasked with researching the backgrounds of the names further to avoid future problems. For example, one of the suggested names is that  of 17th century African queen, Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande. But it’s been pointed out that this might also be inappropriate because the queen was also a slave trader. The past, as Germans know, is treacherous terrain.

This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel and was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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