Beware of the Street Signs: The Hidden Realities of Colonialism in Berlin

By Baheya Malaty

IMG_0551When you think about racism and oppression in Germany, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? More than likely, your mind will jump to the Holocaust and Nazism. This is an understandable first thought: the Holocaust represents one of the most massive genocides in human history, and Nazism one of the most terrifying fascist regimes to ever come to power. Over the past nearly three weeks in Berlin, it seems that every day we have stumbled on some recognition of the Nazi past, be it the plethora of museums dedicated to educating people about Nazism’s crimes against humanity or the tiny golden “stumbling stones” that dot the city’s sidewalks, honoring the victims of the Holocaust. Visitors praise Berlin as a city that has recognized and atoned for its dark past. The first time I visited this city, aged 14, our tour guide took us to the site of Hitler’s bunkers and proudly proclaimed that Berlin was a city that had reclaimed its history. “Look,” she said. “Within 500 meters of Hitler’s bunkers, you can see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an organization which fights for the rights of the physically disabled, and a gay bar!”

Throughout my time in Berlin, I’ve been curious about the ways in which a singular narrative of oppression in Germany—which takes the Holocaust and Nazism as the chief and/or only example of racism—has erased other narratives of oppression. When a society goes to great efforts to apologize, atone for, and learn from a singular catastrophe without employing an intersectional lens, what other “catastrophes” are erased? In “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” R. Ruth Linden problematizes how Holocaust scholarship often “privileges the experiences of one group…while turning our gaze away from other groups” (24). In this way, she argues, several categories of people who were targeted by the Nazi regime—including the Sinti, Roma, gay men, Communists, Jehovah’s Witness, Slavs, people convicted of crimes, and Hutterites—have been “marginalized in Holocaust discourse” (24). Expanding on Linden’s thinking, we must also question how Holocaust discourse in Germany itself marginalizes other narratives of oppression. Our “Africa in Wedding” tour gave me a lot to think about along these lines. Led by our wonderful tour guide Josephine “Josy” Apraku, the tour examined a (not so) different form of oppression: that of German colonialism and its legacy in the so-called “African quarter” in Wedding, a neighborhood of Berlin.

IMG_5682Josy began our tour by explaining that, contrary to what most people who come on her tours believe, this would not be a tour of the African quarter. Rather, this tour would take us through what can be more appropriately called the colonial quarter, referred to this way because 24 streets in the area are named in reference to the history of German colonialism in Africa. As we walked through the rain, Josy guided us past street signs which read “GhanaStraβe,” “TogoStraβe,” and “SwakopmundStraβe.” The latter is a reference to the city in Namibia, Germany’s first settler colony in Africa. In Swakopmund, the German colonizers constructed Germany’s first-ever concentration camp, built for the exploitation and murder of the Herero people. The idea for the concentration camp was borrowed from British colonizers, who had constructed similar work camps for the internment and exploitation of indigenous people in the British colonies, and was later used as model for the concentration camps that Hitler would build across Europe.

Although the Holocaust discourse in Germany has marginalized other systems of oppression, there can be no doubts about the strong links between Nazism and German colonialism. A major part of the Nazi agenda was to reclaim the lost German colonies. Furthermore, Hitler was inspired by many of the racist theorists whose writings were used to justify German colonialism. One such “theorist” was Carl Peters, a key individual at the helm of German colonization in East Africa. Peters, who was in a sexually abusive relationship with an African woman, became infamous after he discovered that this woman had been having a relationship with an African man. Upon learning this, Peters had both of them executed and burned their villages. In 1939, Hitler chose to name a street in the colonial quarter after Peters, as he saw him and his racist theory as an important source of inspiration for Nazi ideology. Sometime after the fall of the Nazi regime, city officials were tasked with renaming and rededicating the street. In Germany, the chosen method for renaming public relics of Nazism is that whatever public space is in question will be renamed after someone who resisted Nazism. City officials chose to keep the street name the same as what Hitler had named it, Petersallee, but rededicate it in memory of Dr. Hans Peters, a Berlin doctor who helped Jews to hide and escape during Nazi rule. Much to our chagrin, Josy informed us that during the process of the re-dedication of Petersallee, no mention was made of the legacy of German colonialism from which Hitler derived the name. This is exemplar of the way in which the recognition and atonement of Nazi crimes has erased the legacy of German colonialism which had always been a critical part of Nazi ideology from the start.

IMG_5679As we continued our tour, hiding beneath giant oaks in order to avoid the rain, Josy taught us about another critical legacy of colonialism, which is often erased: the ways in which the earliest women’s rights movements in Germany were driven by colonialism. Through aligning themselves with colonialism, white German women were afforded more political power and freedom. They were enlisted by and participated in the colonial project in several critical ways. In Showing our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, May (Opitz) Ayim quotes Baroness Zech, the director of a German colonial school for women, as she articulates the mission contract for German women:

Her energy should not take the form of a free, tomboyish nature, but through true femininity she should put the stamp of her nature on the new overseas Germany; she should not merely strive and work out there, but she should be imbued with the spirit of pure Christianity, the high priestess of German breeding and custom, the bearer of German culture, a blessing in the foreign land: German women, German honor, German devotion across the sea. (27)

As Ayim further discusses, racism, sexism, and colonialism went hand-in-hand. The notion of a pure, chaste, white German woman, whose primary responsibilities were to carry on the “master race” through reproduction and to impose the German culture and moral code onto the “savage” natives, was used to enlist white German women in the colonial project. First and foremost, white German women were encouraged to move to Germany’s colonies in order to increase the white population; thus, they were essentially enlisted as “birthing machines.” Ayim argues that at the end of the 18th century in Europe, the new bourgeoisie offered a new feminine ideal that was “characterized more than ever by passivity” (11). This new ideal, that went hand in hand with the rise of capitalism, relegated women to the domestic sphere, where their chief duties were giving birth, raising children, and caring for the home (13). It was this ideal of femininity which was used in service of and allowed for the continuation of German colonization in Africa. In addition to their enlistment in the colonial project as birthing machines, white German women also participated in the act of “civilizing” the native population. While German men were primarily involved in the colonial military and administration, women took up the project of imposing a set of German ethical, moral, and cultural codes onto native societies.

IMG_0562On our first full day of class in Berlin, our tour guide Carolyn Gammon warned: “When in Berlin, beware of the green spaces.” This saying is a reference to the plethora of green spaces in the city, underneath which lie relics of Nazi crimes against the Jews: makeshift cemeteries in which the dead were piled on top of each other, the remains of a burned synagogue, and so on. Following our “Africa in Wedding” tour, we might add: “When in Berlin, beware of the street signs.” In Winter Shorts, Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo discuss the way in which people seek to deny the reality of racism. Burnley writes, “I believe that people invest more effort in denying racism than in dealing with it because facing the purpose for which institutional racism is constructed, is painful.” (13). In this way, people seek to hide or mask the realities of racism and colonialism in their daily lives, those unpleasant reminders that things are far from perfect. The ghosts of colonialism and racism appear eerily similar: in the United States, the tribute paid to victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the Statue of Liberty is completely hidden; in Israel, the side of the apartheid wall visible to Jewish Israeli citizens is masked by hills featuring beautiful flower gardens; and here in Berlin, the names of racist German colonists appear “innocently” on street signs. These ghosts are disguised as street signs, green spaces, monuments, and statues; they are a part of our everyday realities, and yet their true meanings remain hidden. As we learned from Josy, if we are to interrogate and dismantle systems of oppression such as colonialism, we must start by educating ourselves on how these systems permeate into and influence our everyday. We must always search for those tiny, hidden windows to the truth.


MalatyBaheya Malaty is a rising junior at Colorado College studying Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and Feminist and Gender Studies. As co-leader of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Feminist Collective (FemCo), they are passionate about challenging Zionism and engaging in creative activism in solidarity with Palestine using a feminist lens. They are known to many of their friends as “Dad,” due to their superb barbecuing skills, knowledge of sports, classy button-up shirts, and their general Dad sensibility. Their dream is to one day develop a program through which students of color can travel to Palestine and learn about the occupation through a comparative, transnational, and feminist lens. Their alternative dream is to become a stay-at-home Dad.

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