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Street name change major step in decolonizing Berlin

August 28, 2020

The renaming of a Berlin boulevard using the racist M-word to Anton Wilhelm Amo Strasse, after Germany's first African-born scholar, highlights a long struggle to erase symbols of a brutal colonial past.

Pressebild Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland
Image: Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland

"Decolonization does not happen by changing a few street names," Joshua Kwesi Aikins told DW after it was announced that a central city street whose name many regard as racist will now honor Anton Wilhelm Amo, an Afro-German Enlightenment philosopher who in 1734 became the first African-born scholar to receive a doctorate from a European university. 

Aikins is an Afro-German political scientist, human rights activist and member of the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Black People in Germany Initiative, or ISD), one of several civil society groups who, alongside a broad church of ethnologists, anthropologists and historians, have been lobbying for decades to change the name of Mohren or "Moor" Street (respectfully referred to as M-Strasse), and the U-Bahn station of the same name. Moor, in its Greek roots, means dark or black but also "stupid or primitive," Aikins explains, the latter having been historically adopted in German usage.

Dividing up Africa from Berlin

The Black Lives Matter movement certainly gave some impetus to the Berlin Mitte district council's (BVV) vote to rename M-Strasse, with Berlin's public transport company initially announcing on July 3 it would rename the subway stop as Glinkastrasse (since cancelled due to the anti-Semitism of the namesake, a Russian composer).

But following BVV's 2018 vote to rename three other streets in Berlin's African quarter that celebrates the colonial era, the latest change is just the most recent step in a long-running struggle to fight anti-Black racism by exposing a repressed 350-year history of German slavery and colonialism.  

M-Strasse runs through the old quarter of the former Prussian city, steps away from the controversial rebuilt Berlin Palace that oversaw colonial forays into Africa, and near the former chancellor's residence and venue for the 1884 Berlin Conference.

In the words of Berlin-based British-Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga, the major European colonial powers gathered at that conference "discussed how they might divide up Africa." The conference would also kickstart Germany's genocidal colonial forays in Namibia.   

The M-word's overt racist connotations further derive from the 18th century practice of bringing enslaved Africans to Germany as so-called "court moors" to work as servants or to entertain the Brandenburg electors and Prussian kings as musicians. "The street name given at the beginning of the 18th century transports this racist experience of violence against Black people in Berlin to the present day,"  writes historian Christian Kopp of Decolonize Berlin-Mitte.

These slaves were mostly brought from the Brandenburg-Prussian colony in current day Ghana (then known as the Brandenburger Gold Coast) that existed from 1862 to 1720.  

Anton Wilhelm Amo himself is believed to have been enslaved in Ghana as a boy, and was ultimately gifted to the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel in 1707, the year M-Strasse was named. Despite his displacement, he embraced his German identity while never forgetting his African heritage.

Amo's thesis in law at the University of Halle is lost but was titled The Rights of Blacks in Europe. Learning six languages, his later doctoral thesis weighed in on René Descartes' mind-body duality. Yet this Black German trailblazer has been largely erased from European intellectual history. 

Sign to the U-Bahn station Mohrenstrasse changed to Möhrenstrasse
For over a decade, decolonial activists have simply added an umlaut to the 'o' of M-Strasse to make it Möhren, or Carrots StreetImage: Imago/Bernd Friedel

The long journey to Anton Wilhelm Amo-Strasse

M-Strasse's historical link to slavery inspired civil society groups in 2014 to found an annual "Renaming Festival for Berlin's M*strasse" on August 23 to coincide with the International Day for the Remembrance of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its Abolition. 

Last Sunday, the seventh Renaming Festival took place in the sun on Hausvogteiplatz, on the corner of M-Strasse, with an air of jubilation following news of the name change three days before. But most of the many speeches and performances continued their resolve to decolonize all public spaces in the city. 

Tahir Della, a member of the ISD and "Decolonizing the City," was on hand to present a petition with nearly 14,000 signatures to the mayor of Berlin-Mitte that called for the name change. "The renaming of M-Strasse is a great civil society success," he began, before adding that it's only "the beginning of a comprehensive examination of Germany's colonial entanglements and their consequences." 
Read moreBerlin confronts Germany's colonial past with new initiative

The M-Strasse subway stop was renamed George Floyd Strasse by activists at the height of the BLM protests in June
The M-Strasse subway stop was renamed George Floyd Strasse by activists at the height of the BLM protests in June. Berlin's BVG has agreed to change the name, but an change to Anton-Wilhelm-Amo will have to wait until the street renaming becomes lawImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Also speaking at the Renaming Fest was Duane Jethro, a Berlin-based South African scholar at the Institute of European Ethnology at Humboldt University, which is also located on M-Strasse and has been engaging in research to support the renaming – including interviewing passers-by on the street to gauge their reaction to the M-word, which they overwhelmingly felt was racist. 

Jethro told DW that Berlin's decolonization movement is reminiscent of the "contestation of monuments and statues in South Africa, but also street and place names that reference both the apartheid and the colonial regime." Many of the contested place names had themselves been renamed by the apartheid regime as part of a "violent act" of exclusion in which black areas were rezoned white.

Joshua Kwesi Aikins also spoke at the seventh "Renaming Festival"
Joshua Kwesi Aikins also spoke at the seventh 'Renaming Festival'Image: DW/S. Braun

Decolonial strolling 

Indeed, the M-Strasse subway station was itself the product of a renaming in 1991 in the wake of reunification, having been previously called Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse after a GDR politician.

The use of the racist name was called out at the time by pioneering Afro-German activist May Ayim, a poet of Ghanian descent who co-founded the ISD in 1986 and edited the defining book Showing our Colors: Afro-German women speak out. For her, the renaming signified the fact that Germany's Black community was not included in an essentially white reunification process.

In 2010, a Kreuzberg riverfront was renamed after Ayim, who died by suicide in 1996. It was one of the first acts of decolonization, the shore having been named after Otto Friedrich von der Groeben, who in the late 17th century founded the Brandenburg-Prussian colony in Ghana.

Two women stand smiling in a market
May Ayim (right) with Audre Lorde, an African-American poet and activist. They worked together to build an Afro-German identity in Berlin in the 1980s and early 90sImage: Dagmar Schultz

On Friday August 21, a "Decolonial strolling - Public walk. With Anton Wilhelm Amo through Berlin's M*Strasse" revived Ayim's efforts to reveal the coded racism in reunified Germany. The walk through M-Strasse ended at the Federal Ministry of Justice, whose windows contains the infamous installation by the artist Ulrich Schröder regarding the "Freedom to Travel" proclamation that ushered the fall of the Wall.

There 24-year-old Afro-German performer and student Savannah Sipho recited a poem from May Ayim's 1993 collection Blues in Black and White. Born in the reunified Germany that Ayim critiqued, Sipho was repeating a lyric that informs a struggle that will not end with the renaming of M-Strasse: 

the reunified germany
celebrates itself again 1990
without immigrants refugees jewish and black people ...
it celebrates in an intimate circle
it celebrates in white

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.