Berlin faces street battles over 'racist' road names

Activists want city to change the names of Berlin streets they say have racist connotations or honour people responsible for murder and repression in Africa.

Mohrenstrasse, or "Moors Street" underground train station in Berlin. It is one of 10 Berlin streets that anti-racism groups want to rename because of their racist or colonial connotations. Photo taken by David Crossland on March 6, 2010, to accompany story on campaign to rename streets.
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BERLIN // A Berlin street named after a Prussian explorer who founded a slave-trading centre in Africa has been renamed following a campaign by anti-racism groups who say Germany has been ignoring its bloody colonial past for too long. Activists want the city to change the names of an additional 10 Berlin streets they say have racist connotations or honour people responsible for murder and repression in Africa. The calls coincide with the 125th anniversary this year of the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884/85, at which European powers divided Africa up into colonies by drawing arbitrary boundaries.

The council of the Berlin district of Kreuzberg decided that Gröben Bank along the Spree River, dedicated to Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, should be renamed. "We wanted to highlight Germany's colonial past and we think Germans don't pay enough attention to that chapter," Elvira Pichler, a local councillor for the Greens Party, said. "Most Germans think it's all so long ago and that Germany only had small colonies for a brief time. But people don't think enough about the consequences of colonialism, namely racism, which can still be felt very strongly today."

The street is now called May-Ayim Bank in honour of a local poet who helped found a group representing mixed-race African-Germans. The district unveiled the new street sign at a ceremony on February 27. Germany's colonial history has received little public attention in recent decades, partly because it was superseded by the crimes of the Nazis. The German Reich was a latecomer to 19th-century colonialism, playing catch-up with Britain and France. But it rapidly became the third largest colonial power with territories in Africa, China and the Pacific. Like other colonial powers, it often ruled with an iron fist.

In 1904 German troops and settlers smashed an uprising in what is today Namibia by massacring 65,000 Hereros and 10,000 members of the Nama tribe. The German government apologised for the crime only a century later, in 2004, but has refused to settle compensation claims of US$2billion (Dh7.3bn) from Herero descendants. Gröben, a Prussian army officer, was a pioneer of German colonialism. He was sent by Frederick William, the elector of Brandenburg, to found a colony on the west African coast, and set up a fortress, Grossfriedrichsburg, in what is today Ghana, in 1683. Historians estimate that in the two decades that followed, 30,000 Africans were enslaved there and sent to markets in the Caribbean on German ships.

Nevertheless, the renaming was controversial. Some politicians and historians argued that it was an attempt by left-wing revisionists to eradicate a chapter of history from the Berlin street map. "The street names of a city document the mindsets, horizons of experience, mistakes and false certainties of the various epochs they represent," Götz Aly, a prominent German historian, wrote in an opinion piece for Berliner Zeitung, a local newspaper. "That's why they are informative."

He said the campaign was part of Berlin's tradition of changing street names once they no longer suited the prevailing ideology. Many streets and squares in the capital were renamed during and after the Nazi and communist eras. "The thoughtless, ideological street renamers of today - lack humility," Mr Aly wrote. "They lack the ability to see themselves as fallible. They lack respect for the generations to come who will judge our own era with uncomprehending head-shaking or horror. It is a disgrace."

Anti-racism activists vehemently reject the charge that they are sacrificing the city's heritage for the sake of political correctness. "A lot of these colonial names stand for unbelievable crimes. It's just as wrong to name a street after a colonial butcher as after someone responsible for crimes and violence in the Third Reich or in communist East Germany," Joshua Kwesi Aikins, a political scientist at Bielefeld University, said.

"You won't find a Hitler square anywhere in Germany. That principle must also apply to German colonialism, especially because that era in many respects helped prepare the ground for the atrocities of the Third Reich." The Germans used concentration camps to hold rebels in south-west Africa, just as the British had done with the wives and children of Afrikaner farmers during the Boer War. A German anthropologist, Eugen Fischer, who had conducted field studies on mixed-race children in Africa, went on to help draft the doctrine of "racial hygiene" with which the Nazis sought to justify the Holocaust.

Mr Aikins, a German who has a Ghanaian father and belongs to an anti-racism group, said there was growing support from Berlin residents to rename 10 other streets with racist and colonial connotations. These include Mohrenstrasse, or Moors Street, named after African musicians who played in the Prussian army, and Lüderitzstrasse, which honours a merchant who founded the first colony in German South-West Africa, now Namibia.

Peters Avenue is particularly controversial because it is dedicated to Carl Peters, the governor of Germany's East Africa colony in what is today Tanzania. He was dubbed "Hanging Peters" for ordering arbitrary executions, and his brutality towards the local population was too much even for the German imperial government, which ordered him to return to Germany in 1892. "We don't want to wipe away the memory of the colonial era," Mr Aikins said. "We simply want to reverse the commemoration by choosing new names that honour people who fought racism and resisted colonialism."