“Decolonizing Travel” is a series aimed at shedding light on the colonial past of major European and North American countries through the revisiting of monuments, streets, and sites particularly related to it. Today, we are going to decolonize Berlin.
German colonial history has had the benefit of being overlooked. Not only was it short-lived in comparison to that of other European countries (Colonial rule began in 1884 and ended in 1918 with World War II), but it’s also remained hidden behind the shadow of Nazi past.
For activists and historians though, it was Germany’s colonial legacy which laid the groundworks and inspired much of the atrocities of National Socialism. While the country has placed a great deal of effort in dealing with the most infamously known horrors of its history, the same cannot be said about its dealings with Africa.
A General Review of Germany’s Colonial History
By the early 1880s, local demand for resources such as gold, timber, and rubber made almost everyone in Western Europe interested in the continent of Africa. As a way to come to an agreement that would please European rulers seeking to expand their influence through colonial enterprises, representatives of 13 European nations, as well as the United States and the Ottoman Empire, were called on by Otto Von Bismarck, Germany’s then chancellor, to join the Berlin Conference.
Also known as “The Scramble for Africa”, the Conference was used as a way to define where each European power had right to pursue legal ownership of land in the Continent, while also resolving to end slavery by African and Islamic powers, and establish free trade agreements in the area. Interesting to note, no Africans were invited to join these conversations — in fact, continuous efforts of the Sultan of Zanzibar to participate were utterly ignored.
By 1885, the German colonial empire was laid out, encompassing parts of present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, New Guinea, and many other West Pacific and Micronesian islands — a surface three times the size of current Germany.
Following the principle of effective occupation established in the Conference’s concluding General Act, German settlers arrived on said territory, taking over large areas of land and distributing them amongst companies and white newcomers, while the existing native population was placed in reservations.
Though Heinrich Schnee, the last governor of German West Africa, proclaimed the dominant feature of his administration to be “the welfare of the natives entrusted into my care,” said natives ended up being forced to become slave laborers in many cases, and their revolting against colonial expansion led to the installment of several military and genocidal campaigns by the Germans.
When local Herero tribes rose in revolt in present day Namibia in 1903, for example, General Lothar von Trotha ordained the killing of every male Herero, while women and children were to be driven into the desert.
By the end of 1904, prisoners had been herded into concentration camps and given as slave labor to German businesses. During this time, scientists Eugen Fischer and Theodor Mollison took advantage of the prisoners to conduct medical experiments on race, using Herero and mulatto children of Herero women and German men as test subjects.
By 1908, when German authority was re-established over the territory, an estimate ranging from 34,000 to 110,000 Herero and Nama people had died, whether by assasination, or the consequences of attempted escape through the desert. In 1985, the UN’s Whitaker Report classified these occurrences as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century. To this day, the German government has recognized and apologized for the events, but reparations still haven’t been considered.
In an effort to bring colonial history to present day knowledge, many initiatives have been promoted by activists across Germany, such as interactive maps and expositions and campaigns. Up next, we highlight a few of the main sites and streets linked to this history in Berlin, arranging a self-guided decolonizing tour through the city as a way of recognition, and a small step towards recovery.
A Decolonizing Tour Through Berlin
African Quarters, Wedding
Our tour begins in the northeastern neighborhood of Wedding, particularly in the area now known as the African Quarters, established after the First German Colonial Exhibition held at Treptower Park in 1896, where “exotic creatures of Africa” were displayed. Here, everything from objects and art pieces to housing structures, plants, animals, and people were exhibited between 1906 to 1914.
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Around 25 streets and squares in Wedding have associations with Africa. Most of them simply recall countries and cities, but there are three particular streets – Petersallee, Nachtigalplatz, and Lüderitzstraße – that you want to pay attention to, as these are all originally named after notorious German colonial officials such as Carl Peters, founder of the German East Africa Company, whose Swahili nickname was “mkono wa damu:” “the man with the bloody hand.”
While he was eventually recalled by the Reich for his excessive cruelty, the Nazis found him worthy of recognition, making a film about his life and giving Petersallee its name in 1939.
After much effort though, Wedding authorities decided to rename these three streets in 2018, honoring instead three African postcolonial activists. Petersallee was divided into Anna-Mungunda-Allee and Maji-Maji-Allee, the first a Namibian independence campaigner, and the latter an anti-imperialist rebellion that started in 1905 in East Africa.
Lüderitzstraße will go from honoring Adolf Lüderitz – a businessman who deceived the Nama people in a land purchasing scheme and took over 22,000 miles of territory from present day South Africa to Angola – to remember the southwest African tribal leader Cornelius Fredericks, while Nachtigalplatz will become Manga-Bell-Platz, after the Cameroonian anti-colonialist leader.
Located in these same quarters is the street “Afrikanische Straße,” a name given to it after animal trader Carl Hagenbeck decided to establish a permanent zoo and human exhibition in the neighboring Rehberge Park back in 1906.
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Also in the neighborhood of Wedding, Windhuker Straße refers to Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, where one of the first German concentration camps for Herero war prisoners was installed.
While the Treptow Museum could be easily overlooked by most tourists, it is of great importance. It hosts the first permanent exhibit that confronts Germany’s colonial history.
Opened in October 2017, ZurückGESCHAUT was fundamentally co-constituted by activist groups Berlin Postkolonial and ISD (Initiative of Black Germans), meaning great care was taken to address the colonial history responsibly and in a contextualized manner.
Here, you can walk through a room filled with images of the men, women and children brought to be displayed in the “exotic” villages reenacted during Colonial Exhibitions, while reading the stories of many of them – such as that of Kwelle Ndumbe from Cameroon – who refused to be photographed in the “traditional” costume that the organizers wanted him to wear. Instead, he is depicted wearing a pair of opera glasses with which he returns the gaze of onlookers. It was this picture which inspired the exhibition’s name: Zurückgeschaut, or “Looking Back.”
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In 2021, exactly 125 years after the first Colonial Exhibition took place, the Treptow Museum will take part of the 5 year “Initiative for Postcolonial Remembering in the City”, presenting a new and expanded version of the exhibition, where the curatorial team in alliance with civic figures and members of the diaspora will attempt to reconstruct the history of the human exhibitions known as “Völkerschauen.”
Mohrenstraße is probably one of the most well-known symbols of decolonization efforts in Berlin. “Mohren,” a racist insult, is an old German word for people with darker skin.
From 2004, Black and Brown activists have been demanding a change in its name, but it was only in July of this year that the renaming was finally approved and decided: Mohrenstraße will now be called Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße, in memory of the first-known legal scholar and philosopher of African origin in Germany.
Amo was born around 1700 in present day Ghana and brought to Europe as a toddler. It was in Europe where he was “given” to Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig, Lüneburg, and his son. He learned multiple languages, studied law and philosophy and became a teacher at the famous Prussian universities of Halle and Jenna. In 1729 he wrote his first disputation on the “Rights of Black People in Europe”.
Back in 2010, this street in Kreuzberg changed its name to honour the Afro-German poetess and civil rights activist May Ayim. Originally, it was called Gröbenüfer in reference to Otto Friedrich von Gröben — an army commandant responsible for establishing the first German fortress in Ghana, out of which an estimate of 30,000 people were shipped off as slaves to the U.S.A., South America, and Caribbean.
The Ethnologisches Museum, Dahlem
If you want to see the world’s largest collection of art from the Kingdom of Benin (Present day Nigeria), then the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem is the place to go. Turns out, Berlin is home to one of the largest collections of African art in the world, and this museum in particular guards up to 75,000 objects coming from the continent. However, as was the case with its collection of Benin art – acquired by Germany from Britain after the capital city of the Kingdom was conquered and looted in 1897 – most of it is stolen.
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If you were to ask the authorities of the museum they would probably turn a blind eye to it, claiming they were “gifts” to the colonizers or acquired legally. Today, its exhibition still fails to recognize colonial history for what it is, and instead paints this period as a golden age, during which collections were “assembled” by the colonial administration and military’s joint “collecting” expeditions.
Dekoloniale; Memory and Culture in the City
Starting in 2020 and extending till 2024, “Dekoloniale” is a programme comprised of a variety of research projects, events and exhibitions developed and presented by both civic and cultural organizations in Berlin, such as ISD, Each One Teach One, e.V., Berlin Postkolonial and the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, which aim to highlight the legacy of colonialism in urban space.
The programme will include a web-based interactive map presenting biographies of colonized individuals, stories about memorial sites, and city tours, along with an annual cultural festival, interventions, think tanks and an exhibition series highlighting Berlin’s colonial history along with its current repercussions.
For a more detailed program, visit their official website here.