Cintested memories the "african quarter" in Berlin

German colonial experience, as is well-known, was relatively short: the defeat of the Reich in 1918 brought about its abrupt end, since the several punitive measures set up by the Treaty of Versailles included the obligation for Germany to surrender all colonial territories in its possession. This goes a long way to explain why, contrary to the Holocaust, the history of German colonialism – although it was similarly marked by forms of extreme violence, culminating in the genocide of the Herero and Namapeoples in 1904-1906 in so-called German South-West Africa – is today largely absent from German public memory, having, concomitantly, been long subalternized by German historic research.

Afrikanische Straße | Berlin | 2018Afrikanische Straße | Berlin | 2018

In the last two decades, this subalternization has given place to extensive research work that has given the question of Germany’s colonial past, in its many implications, the role it deserves within historiographical knowledge. This extensive academic effort, however, has been scarcely successful in bringing the topic to general public awareness – no doubt, the reluctance of public institutions to thematize this chapter of German history in an adequate way bears an important part of the burden of responsibility for this state of affairs. In 2016, a parliamentary initiative demanding an official recognition of responsibility for the Herero and Nama genocide was rejected by the majority of the members of Parliament. The report set up by the Bundestag’s “Scientific Office”, an advisory board with the function of providing advice on matters scheduled for parliamentary debate, came to the conclusion, under the strictly juridical perspective that only norms already in place at the time of the events may be applicable, that the actions of the German army did not violate international law. The bottom-line of the argument is the sophistry that, in 1906, the German army could not have committed genocide for the simple reason that the concept of genocide did not yet exist nor had it been incorporated in international law at the time. While the report recognizes that, at the beginning of the 20th century, regardless of juridical norms, individuals benefited already from “rudimentary protection”, derived from the “norms of humanity and civilization”, it goes on to argue in a definitive way that “the legal conscience of the community of international law at the time excluded from these minimum criteria the indigenous peoples, that, in its eyes, were ‘uncivilized’”. Although not having the import of an official position, this type of argument is well representative of a form of denial, which, in several aspects, remains constitutive of the way European countries position themselves towards their colonial past. Significantly, the list of bibliographic references appended to the report omits several important titles, most prominently the work of Jürgen Zimmerer, who, in several studies published since the beginning of the millennium and collected in 2011 in the volume Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz (From Windhuk to Auschwitz) has established, in a convincing way, the connection between the genocidal practices put to the test in German South-West Africa and the Holocaust.

Against this background, the recent news concerning the change of denomination of several streets in the “Afrikanisches Viertel” (African Quarter) of the Berlin district of Wedding, an important site of colonial memory in Germany’s capital city, bears a special, even exemplary significance. The intervention culminates several years of pressure on the part of various organizations rallied in the initiative “Postcolonial Berlin”. Apart from other references, the most offensive feature in the toponymy of the “African Quarter” for postcolonial memory lies in the way it celebrates the names of several leading protagonists of the establishment of German colonial rule in different regions of Africa. Among them, the presence of Carl Peters is particularly shocking. Peters was the self-proclaimed founder of the colony of German Eastern Africa and one of the main German colonial entrepreneurs (in 1884, he was the founder of the Society for German Colonization). He is the utmost example of the most brutal colonialist habitus – in connection with German anti-Semite and nationalist organizations, he based his intervention in Africa on the most profound racism, the defense and implementation of forced labour, the violent expropriation of indigenous land. Not by chance, he would later be acclaimed in Germany as one of the spiritual fathers of National-Socialism. His sinister role earned him the Swahili nickname of “mkono wa damu”, the “man with blood-stained hands”. Since the 80s, the name of Carl Peters, present in many streets across Germany since the period of National-Socialism, has been gradually removed, amidst some level of controversy. Finally, the time for Berlin has arrived. The work of the past few decades on the memory of the Holocaust and, in particular, the construction and preservation of that memory in the urban public space of many German cities has been exemplary in several aspects. Perhaps, even if at a slow pace, conditions for overcoming colonial amnesia are similarly being built up.

There was no general consensus around the Berlin initiative – both the Christian-Democratic Party and Alliance for Germany were opposed. Among the opponents, the main argument did not refrain from resorting to the worn-out idea, common in similar contexts, that “history cannot be changed” and that the replacement of street names corresponds to an unacceptable attempt to “rewrite history” on the part of sinister left-wing forces. Yes, history cannot be changed, but historical knowledge can and must be permanently enriched and revised, namely when such a knowledge was based on silence and the forgetting of violence and inflicted suffering and was no more than the expression of a position of power. And, more importantly, in this case, as in several other similar cases, it is not simply about history, but about memory, and public memory, i.e. the collective decision-making on that which is to be celebrated and remembered, and how it should be remembered. The long overdue breakthrough of postcolonial memory leading to the ultimate success of the Berlin initiative clearly reveals the extent to which the struggle for memory is always a key moment in the construction of the contemporary and the future-building of democratic societies.


MEMOIRS is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (no. 648624) and is hosted at the Centre for Social Studies (CES), University of Coimbra.  Memoirs 

Translation:  Alexandra Reza

by António Sousa Ribeiro
Cidade | 13 December 2020 | Afrikanische Straße, Berlin, memoirs