Berlin’s African Quarter, known as Afrikanisches Viertel, located in the northwest of the city, is to undergo a few changes in the near future. The area is long renowned for its gross commemoration of German’s colonial presence in Africa – hence the name of the area and its streets. In an anticipated move, a meeting at Tiergarten Town Hall indicates (link in German) that the area is ready to make some changes.
The viertel is part of the working class neighborhood Wedding in the Mitte locality and is home to a diverse group of residents ranging from German, Turkish, Arab, as well as other migrant populations, and a little over 1,000 Africans. And while the Afrikanisches Viertel, let alone Wedding itself, does not stand out, the area’s street names serve as a reminder of the country’s gross history of colonial presence in Africa.
Germany has an elaborate history that continues to influence aspects of cities like street names, statues, and squares across the country – a history that Germans are not necessarily proud of. In addition the country’s 20th Century, which has dominated the country’s historical narrative, the European power had a intrusive colonial presence in Africa. Some of the streets and squares in the African Quarter commemorate that history by retaining their names, even after Germany has made a conscious effort to moved past that aspect of its history.
The Quarter’s first connection to colonialism dates back to when animal trader, Carl Hagenbeck, who had built a zoo in Hamburg to display the possessions that Germany had seized from Africa, wanted to replicate the model in Berlin. The Hamburg zoo also housed a ‘human zoo’ to exhibit Africans on display; while the Hamburg opened to the public, the Berlin zoo never opened. The area’s street names – Togostrasse, Kamerunerstrasse, Kongostrasse – all of which still exist today, are remnants from that time.
The matter gets a little more complicated since other streets in the quarter are named after Germans who committed major crimes in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. Adolf Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal are the two responsible for fraudulently acquiring the land on which Germany’s first colony was established, yet both have a street and a square named after them. An avenue in Wedding, Petersallee (link in German), is named after Carl Peters, who was also known by locals in East Africa as “Bloody Hands” for his psychopathic violence.
There have been talks around moving away from the avenue’s association by commemorating the World War-era pilot, Hans Peters, who was connected to an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler. However, no significant moves have been made thus far for the avenue.
The town hall’s announcement is the first stepping stone in defacing that part of German history that some still hold highly. A list of suggestions to rename parts of the African Quarter pertaining to the country’s colonial history was presented at town hall last Thursday and will be decided on by a jury consisting of locals from the area, university representatives, and experts.
The suggestions include the likes of Cameroonian King and resistance leader, Rudolf Manga Bell, Cornelius Frederiks, a guerilla leader from present-day Namibia, and Maji-Maji, the name of the war in Tanzania waged against German rule.
Some have argued against renaming streets, claiming that renaming them will erase parts of Germany’s history that serve as a reminder of the country’s dark past. Others from right-wing party AfD and the CDU are against the decision; however, neither have enough representatives to challenge the decision.
The naming or renaming of streets, monuments, and structures in cities often serves to mark the history of cities as well as the political intent of leaders. For example, as relations between Egypt and Turkey sour, Egyptian officials are currently debating shedding Ottoman-era street names to be replaced by the names of Egyptian army personnel. In Turkey, on the other hand, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been renaming streets and bridges in an attempt to push forward his new political agenda.
The renaming of Wedding’s African Quarter in Berlin is slated for mid-April.