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Berlin neighborhood confronts colonial past

Daniel Pelz
April 20, 2018

Local authorities in Berlin's African quarter have decided to rename three streets bearing the names of colonialists. The decision has left many residents in the German capital angry.

Berlin street
Image: Imago/Jürgen Ritter

Nachtigalplatz (Nightingale Square) is a peaceful corner in the middle of the capital. The trees lining the streets are full of chirping birds, laughing children frolic about in the yard of the neighboring primary school and the green stretch of the Volkspark Rehberge is just around the corner. But for the last decade, there has been an ongoing dispute about Nachtigalplatz, Petersallee and Lüderitzstrasse.

"Under Berlin law, people are honored by having streets named after them. That is why there is no question that the current names can be kept. It's obvious: If it is about bestowing an honor, then we can't keep these names," local resident Josephine Apraku told DW.

Read more: Skulls and bones: A dark secret of German colonialism

For years Apraku, together with other activists, has been fighting to have the three streets renamed. As they are now, they honor three controversial personalities from German colonial history: Adolf Lüderitz, who founded the former colony of German South-West Africa by acquiring land through fraud; Carl Peters, who was imperial commissioner in what was then German East Africa and was feared for his brutality, and Gustav Nachtigal, a German Africa researcher and advocate of colonialism.

Opponents of colonialism instead of colonial leaders

For a long time, politicians avoided getting involved in the argument, but now a decision has been reached. On April 19, a majority in the district parliament of Berlin-Mitte voted for new street names. If the district office gives the go-ahead, opponents of colonialism will be symbolically moving into the African quarter. Lüderitzstrasse would then be renamed after Cornelius Frederiks, a resistance fighter in what was then German South-West Africa; Nachtigalplatz would become Bell-Platz, to commemorate Cameroonian King Rudolf Magna Bell, who was put to death by the Germans in 1914; Petersallee would have two new names. One part would be named after the Namibian independence fighter Anna Mungunda. The other part would be called Maji-Maji-Allee, after a resistance movement in former German East Africa.

Berlin African quarter
The street names in Berlin's African quarter have been a source of controversyImage: Imago/Jürgen Ritter

"Some street names in the African quarter still glorify German colonialism and its misdeeds. This is incompatible with our understanding of democracy and is a permanent blot on Berlin's reputation," stated the motion by the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Left Party.

Apraku is delighted by this development: "To be completely honest, I did not think that the streets would be renamed while I was alive," she says.

 'I think it's a joke'

Some local residents hold a similar view. "The [names of] colonial criminals should disappear from the streets," says a young man walking past the construction cabins and crowd barriers on Nachtigalplatz.

Read more: New initiatives to deal with Germany's colonial heritage

"I think it's a joke," mumbles another man with long grey hair, who is planting flowers in the neighboring allotment garden area. "They should have thought of it earlier instead of starting this whole thing after so many years. The names have become established."

A woman carrying two jute bags gets upset when asked about the renaming: "We only moved here a month ago, have re-registered, and now all the fuss is starting again. I can't even remember what the new names are."

There is a bad atmosphere in the neighborhood, explains opposing activist Karina Filusch. She is part of the initiative Pro Afrikanisches Viertel, (Pro African Quarter) which has been fighting against the renaming.

Read more: Berlin 24/7: Does Berlin have racist street names?

"Politicians have always suggested names that were out of the question. Actually, the whole proceeding has been characterized by dilettantism, ideology and dogmatism," she said.

A commitee is set to select new names based on citizens' suggestions. The whole procedure has resulted in a fierce dispute over the body's proposals. In the end, the parties consulted academics in the district parliament to work out new names.

The three proposals agreed to by the SPD, the Greens and the Left have now been adopted. In contrast, the Pro African Quarter initiative wants to keep the same names, but rededicate the streets: Lüderitzstrasse would be named after the city of Lüderitz and Nachtigalplatz after the theologian Johann Nachtigal. Petersallee would keep the same name and dedication, because it was already rededicated in 1986 and named after Hans Peters, a resistance fighter against National Socialism and not after Carl Peters.

Berlin street name protest
There have been protests elsewhere in Berlin change controversial street namesImage: Imago/IPON

Residents could sue

"The proceeding should be returned to the citizens, so that the interest groups can communicate with each other again," says Filusch. But the suggestion of rededications has been rejected by activists such as Apraku.

Read more: Is Berlin's Humboldt Forum shying away from colonial history?

"A critical reappraisal of the past is quite different," she says. She hopes the streets will be renamed — also to send a clear message in terms of other streets with inappropriate names in Berlin and other German cities. "We are increasingly looking at what street names there actually are, what the names refer to, and whether these references are still acceptable according to our current democratic understanding."

The Pro African Quarter initiative considers, in particular, the renaming of Petersallee to be wrong, since the street has already been rededicated.

"I think that the district mayor must be encouraged to withdraw this obviously illegal decision so as not to degrade the memory of Hans Peters. And, of course, we would also encourage local residents to take legal action," says Filusch. The dispute over these streets could soon be keeping Berlin's courts busy.