Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city’s African Quarter is full of signs tied to Germany’s colonial era—but a campaign to rename them is picking up steam.
Take a stroll through Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel neighborhood and you’d quickly recognize it for what it is—an unremarkable, pleasantly humdrum working-class area like you could find anywhere in the city. Solid gray interwar tenements flank tree-lined streets. Away from the main drags, there’s little to see but parked cars and the occasional bodega. This workaday place has nonetheless sparked one of the city’s most intense recent debates about German history and memory—in a city where intense debates of this kind are common.
That’s because the neighborhood’s name—Afrikanisches Viertel, or “African quarter”—refers not to its sizable population with African heritage, but to its street names, all of which in some way reflect on Germany’s little-discussed but especially brutal colonial involvement in Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For years, activists have been trying to get these names changed. And following a town hall meeting earlier this month, it seems they’re finally on their way to getting what they want.
The Afrikanisches Viertel’s connections with German colonialism date back to its first development. Prior to the First World War, the area abutted the site of a zoo planned by animal importer Carl Hagenbeck, who traded animals to P. T. Barnum’s circus and planned to set up the zoo as a showcase for animals from Germany’s African possessions. Following the template of Hagenbeck’s existing park in Hamburg, the site would likely have also featured a human zoo in which non-European peoples were exhibited as if they were a form of wildlife. That zoo never opened, but its planing was reflected in the names of nearby streets. Still today, you can find yourself walking down Togostrasse, crossing Kamerunerstrasse (Cameroon Street) and hitting the little park on Kongostrasse.
Many of these names refer to former German colonies in Africa, but they aren’t the ones at the center of the present debate. Instead, activists—and the majority of Berlin’s political party representatives—are focusing their efforts on streets dedicated to historical figures involved in colonialism. When you delve even casually into the history these people took part in, it’s not hard to see why.
Germany’s grim colonial record was characterized by incredible levels of cruelty, exploitation, and violence. Under German rule in what is now Namibia, for example, the country’s forces pursued a campaign of wholesale land grabs, enslavement, forced labor, and rape. Facing organized resistance from indigenous people, the Germans quashed opposition by pursuing genocide against the region’s Herero and Namaqua people. Between 1904 and 1907, the Germans intentionally confined their opponents within a waterless desert, launching attacks on them during which, according to official orders, women and children were not spared.
Many thousands more died of disease, starvation, and violence in concentration camps, where mortality rates reached as high as 74 percent. This created an overall death toll of between 34,000 and 110,000 deaths, and a system of murder that—with its concentration camps and medical experiments on prisoners—clearly foreshadowed the Holocaust.
Three people involved in this process are still commemorated in Berlin’s African Quarter. Adolf Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal, who first acquired the land for Germany’s southwest African colony on a fraudulent contract, still have a street and a square apiece. Around the corner is an avenue commemorating Carl Peters, a notoriously brutal colonist in East Africa who committed psychopathic acts of violence and was known by locals as “Mkono Wa Damu”—bloody hands.
The laborious fight to change these names has been going on for years. As early as 1986, the local borough announced that the street still called Petersallee would no longer commemorate Carl Peters, but Hans Peters, a Luftwaffe pilot involved in covert resistance connected to the plot to assassinate Hitler. Since that action (deemed a cop-out by many) progress has stalled. Part of the problem was that an initial proposal for an alternative name chosen by a jury—Queen Ana Nzinga, a ruler in what is now Angola—was rejected because she had dealt in slaves, requiring the process to restart.
Finally, after years of wrangling, a short list of possible alternatives was presented at the local town hall Thursday, to be decided by a jury chosen from the local area, universities, and from experts in Germany’s former African possessions. The candidates put forward are Rudolf Manga Bell, a Cameroonian king and resistance leader against German occupation; Cornelius Frederiks, who led a guerrilla war against the Germans in what is now Namibia; and Maji-Maji, the name of a protracted war against German rule that took place in the 1900s in present-day Tanzania. Other possibilities include South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba; Namibian anti-colonial leader Jacob Morenga; Anna Mungunda, a Namibian independence campaigner shot by South African forces during a protest; and American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde.
Sure enough, the changes have their opponents. The extreme right AfD party is against any change. More surprisingly, representatives of the center-right Christian Democrats are, too—although neither party has enough representatives in office in the area to overturn any decision.
Are the dissenters right? A common argument for keeping names and monuments like these is that changing them masks the complexities of a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. Retaining them, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily mean celebrating the deeds of the individuals.
This debate is familiar to cities and countries everywhere, with the result being called in both directions. In the U.S., it’s about monuments and street names associated with the Confederacy. In the U.K., a campaign to remove an Oxford statue of African colonist and diamond trader Cecil Rhodes sparked a similar debate two winters ago, with the statue nonetheless remaining in place. On the European mainland, Poland’s removal of communist-associated place names continued into this decade, while Spain’s attempts to remove names associated with Francisco Franco are ongoing—and by no means unanimously accepted.
In Berlin, recent history makes it difficult to sustain the argument that such names can remain to reflect history, rather than endorse it. The city has already changed so many names associated with Nazis and Soviets (albeit retaining names associated with Marxism). To draw the line at colonialism, whose effects were similarly catastrophic for its victims, would suggest a double standard that would be hard to justify, and harder to stomach. While the replacement names have not yet been confirmed, Berliners living in the area could soon find themselves waking up on Rudolf-Manga-Bell-Strasse or Maji-Maji-platz very soon.