Ten years ago, I interviewed Yonas Endrias about the campaign to change colonial street names in Berlin. Ten years! Last Friday, I met Endrias again. Almost two decades of work were coming to fruition in the form of two new street signs.
Over a hundred people came to the African Quarter in Wedding for three hours of ceremonies in the freezing cold. There were prominent guests like the Namibian ambassador and Jean-Yves Eboumbou Douala Bell, a descendant of the Douala kings. But the real stars were people like Endrias: activists from Berlin Postkolonial, the Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland, and other groups who made this change happen.
After speeches and music, local and foreign politicians pulled a cloth covering from the new sign. The street that had once been Lüderitzstraße is now Cornelius-Fredericks-Straße. Only one sign has been replaced so far — the others had the old name crossed out with orange tape. The same thing happened at the former Nachtigalplatz, now named Manga-Bell-Platz.
Both streets were christened 120 years ago when German colonial fever was at its peak. Both names honour colonialists. Adolf Lüderitz was a Bremen merchant who founded the German Empire’s very first colony, in what is today Namibia. Gustav Nachtigal crossed the Sahara and wrote books about it, before helping to establish German colonies in Togo, Cameroon, and Namibia. (Some defend Nachtigal as an enlightened colonialist because he died in 1885, years the worst German massacres. But there are no good colonialists — good cops are there to help the bad cops do their jobs.)
Now, new street names refer to the same bloody history, but they switch the perspective. Instead of colonial mass murderers, the streets now honour anti-colonial resistance fighters. Cornelius Fredericks was a leader of the Nama people who fought against the German occupation of Namibia and was murdered in a concentration camp in 1907. Rudolf Manga Bell was the king of the Douala people in Cameroon and was executed by the German authorities in 1914. (You can learn a lot more about Manga Bell at the extremely problematic Ethnological Museum at the Humboldt Forum.)
As one speaker said: the African Quarter will live up to its name, and no longer be a Colonial Quarter. The district council of Mitte voted for the change more than four years ago, but it was held up by complaints and lawsuits from residents. A third colonial street name, Petersallee, has not yet been changed due to an ongoing appeal. Carl Peters was the most bloodthirsty colonialist of them all, and it was the Nazis who named a street after him in 1937. These “concerned residents” claim they are not racists — but I have a lot of trouble believing them.
While waiting for the ceremony to start, I spoke with a guy who has lived on Lüderitzstraße for ten years. While he was very much in favour of the new name, the administration has been a minor catastrophe. There was not a single sign announcing the change, nor had residents gotten letters. He had only learned of the ceremony in the press. While the district council announced that residents would get priority appointments at the Bürgeramt to get new IDs with the new address, when he called the hotline 115, no one on the other end had ever hard of such a thing. Weddingweiser has confirmed the chaos.
There were also no neighbourhood meetings to discuss the changes and why they were necessary. This has allowed racists to present themselves as defenders of local democracy. The same day, some of history’s most pathetic Nazis left graffiti in the district council building on Karl-Marx-Allee. “Give us Lüderitz Str. and Nachtigal back!” they wrote on a flip chart, before taking a EU flag and stuffing it in the toilet. At least they’re being transparent about their white supremacy.
The name changes are an important symbolic reckoning with the legacy of German colonialism. But it’s not just about symbols. As multiple speakers pointed out, today between 40% and 70% of the land in Namibia belongs to just a couple thousand white settlers. The German government is still refusing to recognise the genocide in Namibia in any meaningful way. Neukölln still maintains a pro-genocide monument. A real reckoning would involve reparations — changing the street sign is literally the least you could do. And even that took ten years.
When the city was reunified in 1990, dozens of communist street names disappeared quickly. Names like Leninplatz and Clara-Zetkin-Straße honoured revolutionaries who fought against colonialism. Those streets now honour Prussian kings and queens. It is interesting to note that it’s so easy to purge a communist from Berlin’s map — but it’s almost impossible to remove a colonialist’s name from a street sign.
Nathaniel Flakin’s anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.