RVA Global: Like the Confederacy, Colonialism is Hard to Erase in Germany

by | Oct 10, 2018 | RVA GLOBAL

Deeply German location names like Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Straße and Ausspannplatz will soon be redubbed in Germany after leaders of the decolonization movement such as Chief Kuaima Riruako, the founding father of the Herero people, and Augistinho Neto, first President of Angola.  

Community activists in Berlin’s Afrikansche Viertel (“African District”) have been demanding such changes for decades; however, these decisions didn’t come from the city district of Wedding in which the Afrikansche Viertel lies.  These moves against the legacy of colonialism were decided nearly 5,000 miles away by the city council of Windhoek — the former colonial capital of German Southwest Africa, also known as today’s Namibia.


In Berlin, the fight against the remnants of Germany’s colonial period is not going as well.  Every visitor to the city confronts the country’s horrific past through its monuments: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe evokes the millions murdered by the Nazi regime just as the remains of the Berlin Wall remind tourists of East Germany’s cruel Stasi, which, at its peak, employed a network of nearly 200,000 spies against its own people.  In stark contrast, Berlin’s only monument to those slaughtered by its colonial officers is the small, nondescript (and often vandalized) “Herero Stone” tucked away in Columbiadamm Cemetery.  Many of Germany’s most atrocious colonizers, however, remain glorified in street and place names in the Afrikanisches Viertel.

The irony of a neighborhood seemingly dedicated to Africans that memorializes colonizers who massacred thousands can only be explained by the area’s perverse history.  Prior to the First World War, German merchant Carl Hagenbeck earned his fortune by becoming one of the world’s largest traders in wild animals, second only to American circus master P.T. Barnum.  His Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg — the first modern zoo with enclosures instead of cages — was such a huge attraction that he sought to duplicate his success by creating the world’s first “human zoo” that would display the people of Germany’s overseas colonies like animals.  Hagenbeck imported 103 Herero people from Namibia’s biggest ethnic group for his “Colonial Exposition” and laid out a street grid honoring Germany’s most (in)famous colonizers, but WWI promptly forced him to shelve his plans, and the quarter quickly filled with the dense six-story apartment blocks typical of Berlin.

Perhaps African migrants saw the Afrikanisches Viertel’s name as a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe they were simply enticed by this corner of Wedding’s reputation as an affordable working class neighborhood.  Either way, the population of African immigrants and Germans of African heritage in this part of the city has grown to over 23,500, leading to ever-louder calls for the colonialist names to go.  Berlin Postkolonial — the largest activist group calling for change — has focused its efforts on removing the names of Germany’s three worst colonizers: Carl Peters, leader of Deutsch Ostafrika (Tanzania); Gustav Nachtigal, Commissioner for Deutsch Westafrika (Cameroon & Togo); and Adolf Lüderitz, founder of Deutsch Südwestafrika (Namibia).

Carl Peters, a vocal proponent of Social Darwinism, viewed the indigenous people of modern Tanzania with such disdain, and treated them with such arbitrary cruelty, that his two-year rule of the colony twice provoked popular rebellions against him.  After one of his many concubines slept with another man, Peters hanged them both and massacred each of their home villages, thus triggering the investigations by the Imperial Colonial Office that would lead to his downfall.  Twenty years after his death in 1941, the Nazis lauded his reputation for racist atrocities by posthumously restoring his official title as Imperial High Commissioner, creating a propaganda film that showed him as a hero fighting against the “savages” of Africa, and dedicating a street to him in the Afrikanisches Viertel with a ceremony in 1937 that was attended by Hitler himself.

Memorial to Murdered Jews

While many colonizers in Africa were simply racist monsters, others like Gustav Nachtigal viewed themselves as the white savior that “primitive” Africans desperately needed to bring European-style order to the continent.  Known as one of the great explorers of Africa, Nachtigal’s interest in ethnography and tropical medicine led him across the Sahara and through Chad where he witnessed the horrors of slavery.  He led a coalition of German businessmen to establish the colony of German West Africa, the Kaiser’s first overseas territory, in 1884 in the hopes that European rule would put an end to slavery.  It did not, but the German West African Company continued to reap riches from the colony’s resources until 1919.

After two bankruptcies trying to make a fortune as a trader, Adolf Lüderitz married up and wielded his newfound wealth to purchase an 84-mile stretch of land in today’s Namibia which he named “Lüderitzland” in exchange for £600 in gold and 260 rifles.  With the riches from the port he established (also named Lüderitz) he eventually bought up the entire a 220,000 square mile swathe of land from South Africa to Angola. Two decades later in 1904, the indigenous people of the  German Southwest Africa colony he founded would rise up against their overseers in the Herero Wars.

During the three years of the Herero rebellion, German colonial officials established a pattern of government-directed cruelty and violence that foreshadowed the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, leftists, gays, Sinti and Roma, and all others they despised.  At the start of the war General Lothar von Trotha issued a “Vernichtungsbefehl” — an order to eliminate all indigenous people by massacring the men, and driving the women and children into the barren desert hinterlands.  When the extermination order was finally lifted at the end of 1904, the survivors were herded into concentration camps or transferred to German businesses as slave labor.  

In the camps survivors were forced to clean the skulls of their slaughtered people so that they could be sold to Europe for use in anthropological collections and the faux-science of phrenology.  Historians estimate the death toll of this first genocide committed by the Germans in Namibia is around 80,000 Hereros (~80% of their total population) and 15,000 Nama people (~50% of their total).  German colonial officers would deploy these same tactics the following year in Tanzania against the Maji-Maji Rebellion, which would leave 250,000-300,000 massacred.

Berlin’s leftist parties have been calling for street names glorifying German colonizers to be changed to reflect a more positive heritage of the area, and celebrate Africa’s biggest freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the city’s parties on the right have been engaged in a disingenuous game of rededication, not renaming. In 1986, the local council switched out who the Petersallee in the Afrikanisches Viertel honors by adding a tiny placard beneath the street sign specifying Hans Peters, a Christian Democrat politician and opposition fighter against the Nazis. Today, members of Angela Merkel’s CDU and the far-right AfD are calling for another round of rededication to dodge accusations of continuing to condone colonialism; they absurdly propose Lüderitzplatz honor Lüderitz the city in Namibia, not the man who founded that exact same city in Namibia, which the street is currently named after.

Gustav Nachtigal

Almost a decade ago, the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg found itself in the same position after a civil society group called for the renaming of the Gröben-Ufer river bank along the Spree. Otto Friedrich von der Gröben founded and led the Brandenburg Gold Coast colony in what today would be Ghana. From 1682-1720, the Electorate of Brandenburg (later part of Prussia) got rich using this small colony as a base to sell inland Africans into the slave trade.  Based on his complicity in the slave trade, the local district renamed the riverbank in 2009 after Mai Ayim — a poet, educator, and leader of the Afro-German empowerment movement. Activists in the Afrikanisches Viertel believe change is coming to their neighborhood next.  

This year, the cultural committee of the local district council called for Petersallee to not just be rededicated, but to finally be renamed Maj-Maji-Allee after the genocide in Tanzania.

At the end of one of the increasingly-popular tours of the Afrikanisches Viertel, the guide closed saying that “Colonialism is a real danger to today.  It’s not just about street signs from one hundred years ago. The attitude behind the signs still exists.”

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon is a born-and-raised Richmonder who holds a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's degree in international politics from the American University in D.C. Wyatt is an urban planner and community organizer working to foster safer, more sustainable cities and greater civic participation in local government.

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