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Colonial Berlin in 10 stops

Colonialism on our streets? You bet! And there's plenty. Exberliner gives you a thorough guided tour of the sordid and shameful history here.

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From Wedding’s “African Quarter” to the “Africa Stone” in Neukölln’s Columbiadamm cemetery, reminders of Germany’s short-lived colonial era are all over Berlin. You just have to know where to look.

Germany might have entered the colonial game late, but it did so with typical Prussian vigour. Starting in 1884, the German Reich conquered vast swaths of Africa. It lost its ‘place in the sun’ soon after the First World War and was not able to reclaim it in the Second. Still, Germany had the time to plant flags, scoop up local treasures and – in the early 1900s – commit its first genocide, against the Herero and Nama people of current-day Namibia.

Germany’s ill-fated colonisation of Africa might have deserted most minds, but its memory lives on in the streets and stones of Berlin. Take a tour across the city and discover Germany’s colonialist past, from 17th-century Prussian slave traders to the current-day activists who have been trying to uncover and challenge this secret history for years.

1. Gröbenufer A slave trader’s street

Start out on the Kreuzberg side of the Oberbaum Bridge. Opposite from Watergate, you’ll find a small street that runs along the Spree. This street was once named after Otto Friedrich von der Gröben. While other Prussians were focused on the army, this 25-year-old aristocrat braved the oceans to reach the Gold Coast (in current-day Ghana) and establish the fort Groß-Friedrichsburg. On January 1, 1683, the screaming red eagle of Brandenburg was raised over African soil.

The Prussians used the fort primarily for slave trading, kidnapping over 20,000 Africans and sending them across the Atlantic. After 35 years, however, Prussia’s soldier king lost interest in colonies and sold the fort to the Dutch West India Company. Gröben might have remained a footnote in German history had his name not been dredged up during the fevered colonial excitement of 1895 when the government honoured him as the founder of Germany’s colonial empire.

2. Mohrenstraße “’Moor’ isn’t an offensive word!”

Long before Hollywood actresses started adopting African babies, 18th-century European royals were enthralled with “court moors”: Africans forced to work as servants. When the Dutch bought Groß-Friedrichsburg, their payment included 12 Gold Coast natives, whom old King Fritz put to work as army musicians. Their barracks in the centre of Berlin inspired the name “Moor Street”.

Many years later, German-African activists are still campaigning to change the outdated racial slur to something less offensive (“Nelson Mandela Street” was one suggestion). Longtime Berliner Yonas Endrias, originally from Eritrea, has spent the past seven years campaigning with the group Berlin Postkolonial, listening as local (white) politicians explain that “moor” is not really a deprecatory word. In February 2009, an unknown individual in a pink bunny suit added two dots to the street signs, thus transforming Racial Epithet Street (Mohrenstraße) into Carrot Street (Möhrenstraße). Clever, right?

3. Bismarck-Nationaldenkmal Germany extends its Reich

A monument to Germany’s first emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I, once stood in the Großer Stern, the traffic circle in the middle of the Tiergarten. The Kaiser was removed in 1950, but a statue of his chancellor of many years, Otto von Bismarck, still remains. Although the ‘iron chancellor’ might be remembered as the architect of the German Reich, founded in 1871, he won more territory in Africa than in Central Europe.

Before Bismarck turned his sights to the south, the French had long conquered much of North Africa, while the British were working to establish a colony from Cairo to the Cape. Yet in a few short years Germany annexed Togo, Cameroon, German South-West Africa (today: Namibia) and German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi). The northeastern part of current-day New Guinea also became “Kaiser- Wilhelms-Land”, and to this day a nearby group of islands is still called the Bismarck Archipelago.

4. Wilhelmstraße 77 Where Africa was divided

Past the Brandenburg Gate and the Adlon hotel, the splendour of Wilhelmstraße gives way to monotonous blocks of concrete East German flats. It is hard to imagine that this was the government quarter of imperial Berlin.

In November 1884, Bismarck invited 14 colonial powers to a meeting in the chancellor’s palace at Wilhelmstraße 77. Europe’s coastal colonies were beginning to expand inward, but who would control the vast Congo basin? Bismarck’s Kongokonferenz (known in English as the Berlin Conference) took three months to divvy up the continent’s riches.

By the end, the Congo had been given to ruthless King Leopold II of Belgium. Under his rule, several million Africans were worked to death or executed. The rest of Africa was divided up along geometric boundaries with complete disregard for the people living there. Of the 50-plus countries created, only Abyssinia (part of modern Libya), Ethiopia and Liberia retained any kind of independence.

Today, the meeting that changed the fate of a continent is commemorated only by an aluminium information plaque.

5. Wissmannstraße An explorer and a conqueror

The short cobblestone street heading up from Hermannplatz is named after Hermann von Wissmann, who with his pith helmet and handlebar moustache resembled the classic explorers of yore. But Wissmann was no anthropologist – his early expeditions through Central Africa were financed by the Belgian crown in order to prepare for colonisation.

Wissmann became the Reich Commissar for German East Africa in 1888. When coastal residents rose up against German rule, he declared their towns would be “wiped off the map”. His iron-fisted rule was so successful that he was eventually named governor of the colony – and given two different Berlin streets in the 1890s.

6. Karpfenteich More than just carp on display

Colonialism was not just about labour camps and mass murder. It was also about looking at exotic flora and fauna…including humans. The 1896 German Colonial Exposition, or Völkerschau, proudly displayed 103 real, live Africans in a ‘Negerdorf ’ (negro village) by Treptower Park’s Carp Pond. Among these were five Herero from German South-West Africa, including the paramount chief’s eldest son. With his suit and rifle, Friedrich Maherero hardly matched Berliners’ image of a ‘typical native’. Felix von Luschan, director of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, said he imagined not all Herero made such a “gentleman-like” impression.

7. Afrikanisches Viertel Why an African quarter?

The success of the Colonial Exposition inspired zoo magnate Carl Hagenbeck to develop plans for a permanent Völkerschau. The Rehberge Park in Wedding was to be the location of a zoo in which people would be displayed alongside animals. The two World Wars destroyed these plans – and the German colonial empire itself – but not before the streets east of the park were re-christened in honour of Germany’s brand-new territories and the men who conquered them. Over time, the area became known as the Afrikanisches Viertel, or African Quarter.

Among such streets as Kameruner Straße and Togostraße, you’ll find Lüderitzstraße and Nachtigalplatz, honouring a businessman and a politician who used threats, deception and military force to bring Togo, Cameroon and German South-West Africa under imperial “protection”. There was also a street named for Carls Peters, who conquered German East Africa in the 1880s. His rapes and murders were too much even for the Kaiser, however, and he was fired in 1897 – only to be given a street and a monument by Hitler in 1937.

Activist groups and the German government have attempted to reclaim the quarter from its colonial past. Petersallee is now named after conservative politician Hans Peters (no relation), and the monument is gone. Ghanastraße, named in 1958, commemorates the independence of that former British colony. And a stand-alone plaque at the subway station Rehberge provides a short history of the area.

The Afrikanisches Viertel started to attract Africans from the late 1990s onwards. Nowadays about 2500 people from African countries live there – not for the name, but for the relatively cheap rents.

8. Lüderitzstraße Don’t mention the G-word!

A particularly controversial street in the Viertel is Lüderitzstraße. Lüderitz, a small harbour city in German South-West Africa (current-day Namibia), itself named after colonialist merchant Adolph Lüderitz, played an important part in the most brutal episode in German colonialist history. It was on Shark Island, just off the city’s coast, that Germany founded its first concentration camp.

From 1904-07, the Herero and Nama (pejoratively referred to as the “Hottentots”) living in the colony rose up against their German ‘protectors’. General Lothar von Trotha responded to this uprising by issuing his infamous Vernichtungsbefehl, ordering German forces to exterminate every Herero man, woman and child they could find. His troops drove many natives out into the desert to die of thirst, while survivors were forced to work to death at Shark Island and other concentration camps. In total, 80% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama were killed.

Whereas most historians regard the episode as Germany’s first genocide, and the camps and eugenics studies implemented there as direct precursors of the Holocaust, German politicians are still reluctant to refer to the atrocities as ‘genocide’. (Read our interview with historian Jan Bart Gewald on www.exberliner.com)

9. Charité How many skulls?

Continuing north on Wilhelmstraße, you eventually reach the high-rise Charité, Berlin’s largest hospital. Just last year, the hospital returned 20 skulls from its ‘collection’ to a delegation from Namibia. These 20 were among an estimated 3000 taken from German South- West Africa in the early 20th century.

Forced labour at Shark Island and other concentration camps included cleaning off skulls to send to Germany for ‘scientific research’ to prove the racial superiority of Europeans – foreshadowing the even more brutal experiments carried out by Josef Mengele and others during the Nazi regime. To this day, no one knows how many skulls are in institutions and private households all over the country.

10. Friedhof Columbiadamm Berlin’s most offensive monument

At the back of the Columbiadamm cemetery, in the shade of ivy-covered trees, there is a strange calm – only interrupted by loudspeaker announcements from the lifeguard at the Neukölln public pool, located just on the other side of the red brick wall. Here, you will find Berlin’s most offensive monument.

It seems that the colonial troops massacring the Herero and Nama suffered some hardships themselves. In 1907, a giant block of red granite was engraved with the names of seven soldiers who “died a hero’s death”. The Afrikastein (Africa Stone) stood in Kreuzberg until 1973, when Berlin’s dubious “Africa-Camaraderie Society” restored the stone and moved it to its current location. At the same time, they inscribed it with the logo of Hitler’s failed Afrikakorps initiative, replacing the swastika with an iron cross.

For years, Berlin Postkolonial and other groups have protested this inappropriate tribute. “Our demand was to remove the Africa Stone, or at least put a decent text on the plaque,” says Endrias. The government’s response? In October 2009 a much smaller plaque was installed on the ground next to the stone, commemorating Namibia’s 60,000 “victims of colonial war”. According to Neukölln councilman Thomas Blesing, the German Foreign Office “strongly discouraged” any references to genocide.

Back to Gröbenufer… now known as May-Ayim-Ufer

Our tour now ends right where it began – at the former Gröbenufer, renamed the May-Ayim Ufer in February 2007. Now, the street honours the legacy of a German-Ghanaian author and activist who founded the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland. After so many years drawing attention to the country’s little-known colonial past, it is only right that May Ayim claim victory in this ‘street battle’.

And now?

The fight to replace Berlin’s imperial and colonial street names is going slowly, and indeed sometimes even going backward. Witness the 1991 renaming of the Otto-Grotewohl-Straße U-Bahn station to Mohrenstraße, the GDR prime minister replaced by the 18th-century N-word equivalent. Berlin worked overtime to eliminate communist street names – so why are the colonialist names still around?

Some Berliners oppose renaming the streets for purely financial reasons – heaven forbid they have to buy new letterheads. Others, like formerly left-wing historian Götz Aly, say they do not want to erase history. Endrias argues: “We need to remember history, but why remember it with the names of murderers?” There are, after all, no Hitler or Himmler streets to commemorate the Holocaust.

As long as they exist, however, the street names provide an impetus for Endrias and Berlin Postkolonial to bring attention to this little-known chapter in Germany’s history.

When these activists demand reparations, they are not primarily referring to money. Germany’s colonial crimes need to be discussed in schools and universities. The German government needs to apologise. And somebody really, really needs to get rid of the Afrikastein.