Not many people know Germany’s Volkstrauertag, the Day of National Mourning. On November 13 a bunch of old fascists and semi-fascists head to military graveyards with candles and flowers to remember the fallen.
Berlin’s most militaristic cemetery is on Columbiadamm, next to Tempelhofer Feld and the Neukölln public swimming pool. There you can find memorials to German soldiers from the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and even World War II, with jingoistic messages like “We died so that Germany may live!” It is creepy — something that really shouldn’t exist today.
Following orders to exterminate every Herero man, woman, and child, German troops murdered 60,000 to 80,000 people
I visited the cemetery last Sunday, based on an anonymous tip (more on that in a second), and saw numerous fresh wreaths and still-burning flames. I must have just missed whoever placed them. I imagine a bunch of pathetic octogenarians whose Nazi nostalgia will soon die along with them.
At the back of the cemetery, against the eastern wall facing the pool, stands the Most Offensive Monument in Berlin. The giant hunk of red granite is dedicated to seven German soldiers who “died a hero’s death” in South West Africa. In 1904-1907, they were committing genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia — arguably the first genocide of the 20th century. Following orders to exterminate every Herero man, woman, and child, German troops murdered 60,000 to 80,000 people.
This rock, created in 1907, was placed in the cemetery in 1973 and has stood here ever since. Even after the German government kinda-sorta (but not really) recognized the genocide last year, this celebration of Völkermord hasn’t budged. And as if that weren’t sufficiently atrocious, a logo of the German Afrika-Korps from 1941–3 was later added to the stone.
Instead of removing this horrifying monument, Neukölln’s government has tried to “add context” — and really just made things worse. A provisional plaque for the victims of the genocide was placed in front of the so-called Herero Stone in 2004. It disappeared after just a few days. A more permanent gravestone was installed in 2009 — now notably lacking the term “genocide.” It was instead dedicated to the “victims of German colonial rule.”
At the back of the cemetery, against the eastern wall, stands the Most Offensive Monument in Berlin
And what can be said about it? If we wanted to be generous, we could say that the local politicians were doubtlessly well-intentioned. Apparently, Germany’s foreign ministry pressured them behind the scenes to avoid the G-word. But the ensemble only serves to highlight the racism: While seven German murderers are honored with an enormous rock, their 60,000 victims are turned into the physical equivalent of a footnote. The district council spent less than €2,000 for this lackluster marble slab. And yet, this insultingly inadequate marker remains the only monument to the victims of German colonialism anywhere in the country.
On Sunday, I got to see two very different perspectives on the Africa Stone. A “Tradition Association of Friends of the Former Protected Area German Southwest Africa” (yes, that’s their real name) had left a white ribbon with “patriotic greetings to the distant graves in Southwest Africa.” They do not mean the graves of the victims of the genocide — rather those of the killers.
But the same day, someone (presumably a different person) had covered the rock in bright red paint. I had gotten an anonymous tip. On closer inspection, the whole rock had countless red red stains — earlier graffiti that couldn’t quite be removed. I asked Neukölln’s district government how often people used red paint to express their distaste at genocide. They said they weren’t keeping statistics, but plenty of times, even if the pace slowed down in 2021.
I wondered how much they will pay to clean up the latest coat of paint — how much all taxpayers are going to pay to honor these “heroes”? They have promised to get back to me as soon as they have an estimate.
Back in August, the taz newspaper reported that things will be changing. But the article beneath that headline sounded much more modest. Apparently the Museum Neukölln — several kilometers away from the cemetery — is going to have an exhibition on the Africa Stone in 2023. It promises to feature “different perspectives.” But what exactly do different perspectives on genocide look like? Pro and Contra?
By adding one coat of red paint after another, Berlin can create a living monument
Imagine for a second if Germany were commemorating its other genocides like this. It would mean leaving up all the Nazi statues, and then adding small signs about how some people are quite critical of Hitler.
Christian Kopp of Berlin Postkolonial has a much simpler solution: take away the Africa Stone – not after a few more years of discussion, but right now — and put it in the Spandau Citadel where other decommissioned “toxic monuments” are presented.
And if that’s too expensive? There is a much easier solution: just let civil society take care of the problem. By adding one coat of red paint after another, Berlin can create a living monument that continually rejects the shocking crimes of German colonialism.
For more about the Africa Stone and Berlin’s colonial history, check out Nathaniel’s book Revolutionary Berlin, available from Pluto Press for €20.