Some Final Thoughts on the 2017 #FemGeniusesInBerlin

 

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Zlevor)

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

By Annie Zlevor

Throughout this trip, I encountered many difficult questions that I have been struggling to answer. After three weeks of exploring Berlin, meeting with local activists, visiting museums, and attending walking tours, I find myself only a little closer to understanding their answers. More often than not, my experiences have left me with new questions, wishing I could spend more time in Berlin. On my final day in the city, I would like to consider these questions and reflect on how my recent experiences have allowed me to more critically examine them. I hope to apply what I have learned in the course and continue furthering my understanding of identities, forms of oppression, and memorials.

First, I want to consider our navigation of identities and subjectivities. How do we see ourselves and acknowledge how others see us? This question has helped me reflect more deeply on my own positionality and how society chooses to perceive it. In the spaces I have been welcomed into during this trip, it was important for me to understand how my own experiences exist in relation to the experiences of others. Having a greater awareness of this has better enabled me to listen critically and appreciate the narratives people share. Therefore, I discovered that my primary role ought to be that of a curious listener. This blog serves as an extension of this curiosity and as an ongoing attempt to understand the marginalized communities of Berlin and my role in it.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Zlevor)

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

After speaking with local activists, I began to question how and when people decide to confront forms of oppression and when they choose to affirm or challenge stereotypes. These questions reminded me of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel and our discussion with Post-War Generation Black German Women. Spending time with Black and Turkish activists in Berlin has allowed me to better understand how individuals chose to deal with racism and sexism. While each experience is unique to the individual, it was clear that in their navigation of public space, they are never divorced from activism. As Musa Okwonga plainly stated, “You’re Black all the time in Berlin.” And although it is the Afro-German’s right not be discriminated against and exhibit self-determination, they must to spend their life in opposition to racism. They are not getting paid to spend their time confronting oppression, yet the burden so greatly lies on them.

How people choose to confront different forms of oppression also reminded me of our discussion with Salma Arzouni about their work with Gladt and SAWA. I felt that Salma consciously and efficiently navigated what needed to be achieved in their own fight against racism and sexism. Although it is exhausting work, it seems as if they effectively prioritize their goals when trying to combat oppression in a community. As someone who works day and night to support queer communities in Berlin, Salma has to carefully decided how to spend their time. They described the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve their short-term initiatives. For example, instead of spending their time arguing with the local government at the risk of receiving cuts to Gladt’s government funding, Salma decided to temporarily halt a particular kind of political activism. For the sake of Gladt, Salma now chooses to spend that time helping queer people secure a permanent place to live. While this achievement might not seem monumental to some, it is life-changing for those people who now have a place to sleep at night.

Memorial in Schöneberg (Mills)

Memorial in Schöneberg [Photo Credit: Nikki Mills]

Additionally, after visiting many museums and memorials, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how certain histories have been told. I personally need to take more time to consider who writes these stories. More specifically, I want to understand the implications for those who speak for themselves and those who are being spoken for. Also, it was important for me to learn more about what groups of people were involved in the creation of Jewish memorials. I was curious if Jewish-Germans often gave input on their construction and who decided what to include in it. As Sabine Offe writes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “We do not know whether individuals, confronted with the obligation to remember, do indeed remember what they are supposed to” (79). However, while some forms of remembrance can be more accurate than others, figuring out a way to accurately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust is beyond complicated and nearly impossible to accomplish. As a result, I am reminded of the importance of looking at historical sites more critically. This causes me to further question how we decide to honor a community that is not monolithic. For instance, I hope to better understand how a memorial can erase the individual experiences of a population. As R. Ruth Linden describes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” a generalized representation of a group of people “fails to be accountable to lives that are actually lived: situated in bodies with limited means of making sense of…world-historic events in which they participate as…cultural subjects” (27). As a result, this adds another layer to the complexities of memorials and how people choose to represent communities. I hope that we more often attempt to honor the experiences of individuals since it can be easy to erase these differences when trying to honor an entire group.

Unlike most of the Jewish memorials, there were two important instances during our trip where I noticed groups of people deliberately telling their own story: the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum and the Roma and Sinti Historical Walking Tour. The FHXB Museum exhibit was a collaborative piece that the local community came together to create. They directly told the history of the district where generations of their own families grew up. I felt this participatory exhibit was representative of strong community relationships and also much more effective in the telling the histories they chose to portray. Additionally, the Roma and Sinti walking tour did much of the same work. The Roma high school students who led the tour self-organized and researched all the material presented. Further, when I asked the students what their parents thought about the tours they were giving, they responded, smiling: “Our families are very proud.” The energy and passion the students exhibited on the tour I feel could have been easily lost if non-Roma and Sinti people led it.

Roma and Sinti Memorial (Zlevor)

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

Lastly, after three weeks of listening to and engaging with marginalized people in Berlin, I am left wondering how I can take what I have learned out into the world. Firstly, I hope to do this by recognizing the importance of going beyond academic work. While reading and discussing articles and books are beneficial in developing a basic understand of the material, the practical application of Feminist and Gender Studies outside the classroom is a hard-fought war. By spending time both inside and outside the classroom, I feel as if I can most effectively support marginalized communities and become more consciously aware of their situation. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti describe in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” if people understand the complexities of human relationships, this subsequently “drives them toward solidarity with outcasts and emboldens them to a collective struggle against the oppressors” (89). I feel my future goal must be to join this collective struggle. By knowing my place and understanding my own identity in relation to others, I feel as if I can do this and support marginalized groups in their fight against forms of oppression.

Cheers

Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis

2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!

#FemGeniusesInBerlin 2017: Our First Two Days” by Hailey Corkery
Taking Down The Wall of Religious Intolerance: Jewish History in Berlin” by Olivia Calvi
Gladt and SAWA with Salma Arzouni: Representation in Political Social Work” by Nora Holmes
The Anne Frank Museum and It’s Place in Contemporary Germany” by Liza Bering
The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History” by Talia Silverstein
Navigating White Spaces: An Intersectional Analysis of Activist Work by Men of Color” by Ryan Garcia
Africa in Wedding: Germany’s Colonial Past” by Jannet Gutierrez
A Young Jew’s First Week in Berlin” by Nikki Mills
A Permanent Home for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s History: The FHXB Museum” by Annie Zlevor
The Porajmos: The Hidden Narratives of the Roma and Sinti” by Hailey Corkery
Writing Ourselves into the Discourse: The Legacies of Audre Lorde and May Ayim” by Nikki Mills
A Day in Amsterdam: Seeking the Voices at the Margins” by Olivia Calvi
‘Nobody Flees Without a Reason’: A Walk Through Berlin’s Queer History” by Ryan Garcia
Memorialization: The Past in the Present and Why it is Important Today” by Liza Bering
ADNB des TBB: Intersectionality and Empowerment in Anti-Discrimination Support Work” by Nora Holmes
Mauerpark: Graffiti as Art” by Jannet Gutierrez

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here


Annie Zlevor Blog PhotoAnnie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.

Africa in Wedding: Germany’s Colonialist Past

Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez

By Jannet Gutierrez

Germany has had a very controversial history of violence and racism, the most well-known arguably being the Holocaust. However, the theory of white Germans as being the “master race” existed even before the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power. Our tour of Wedding, led by Josephine Apraku, truly shed light on the history of racism in Germany and revealed a commonly untold narrative by specifically focusing on German colonialism in Africa. This tour, which began at the intersection of Ghanastraße and Swakopmunder Straße, examined the history of German colonialism especially in the context of the street signs located around Wedding. A quick outline of Wedding: this part of Berlin consists of twenty-two streets and one square. The houses around Ghanastraße were meant to be nice and affordable housing for individuals and families with low incomes, but as Josephine pointed out, many people with higher incomes now live there. The streets in Wedding, especially around Afrikanische Straße, have names that are connected to German colonialism; for example, the first and second streets named were titled after the first and second colonies that were occupied by Germany—Kameruner Straße (Cameroon) and Togostraße (Togo).

Due to the lack of discussion about the colonialism period here in Germany, I was surprised to learn that Germany was the third largest colonizer in Africa. They had colonies in Africa and parts of Asia. As Josephine explained to us, one main reason for Germany to want to become a colonizing power was its increasing population. Germany felt the need to cater to their growing population and expand. This led to the colonization of places such as Namibia, of which Josephine talked about in more depth. For instance, she mentioned the influential role white German women played in the settling of Namibia. On the surface, they were sent to bring ethics and German morals (tugend) to the colony. They also had more freedom economically and politically. However, disturbingly (yet unsurprisingly), they were primarily there to ensure the birth of white babies. In other words, they were there to prevent the mixing between white Germans and Namibians and to preserve the “purity” of German whites. This feeling of competition led the German women to be hostile towards the African women, who they viewed as opponents. These white women felt and expressed no solidarity with those women in Namibia. This was very powerful for me to think about, because white women in the colony, although having more freedom than their counterparts in Germany, were still oppressed. However, instead of helping, they contributed to the oppression of African women, and by doing this, they contributed to their own oppression as well. Of course, there were still some Black babies being born. Because of this, as Josephine recounted, in 1907, the German government passed a law that refused German citizenship to anyone “with a drop of Black blood.” This same racist belief was also prevalent in Nazi Germany. As Marion Kraft points out in “Coming in from the Cold: The Black German Experience, Past and Present,” “Racial politics during World War II and the postwar years, in particular, have reinforced the notion of a racially homogenous society” (2). There was a strong belief that German was a race, as well resistance against mixing of races. This belief was clearly also seen, and perhaps even began, in the colonial era.

Because of the occupancy by Germans and the harsh treatment of the Namibian people, colonialism in Namibia was soon met with resistance. German soldiers responded this resistance by taking Namibian land and sending Namibians out to the desert. The ones that did not die from starvation or dehydration were brought back and put into a concentration camp. Although not meant to be death camps like the infamous Auschwitz during the Third Reich, these Namibians faced hard labor and a low food supply. As many as 60% of the population died from these harsh conditions. What was even more difficult for me to hear was the fact that after the death of some of the prisoners, the women would be forced to take sharp glass and cut the skin of the corpses away from the bones. The bones would then be taken to different universities and used for experimentation and for studies that attempted to prove scientific racism. This ideology, similar to ethnology, “attempted to link physical characteristics with intellectual and cultural ones,” as May Ayim notes in “Racism, Sexism, and Precolonial Images of Africa in Germany” (7). For me, this was reminiscent of eugenics. This is especially true when taking into account the attempted prevention of the “mixing” between white Germans and Namibian natives.

Apraku II (Gutierrez)

Clockwise from Top Left: Ryan Garcia, Annie Zlevor, Josephine Apraku, Liza Bering, Hailey Corkery, Nora Holmes, and Talia Silverstein [Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez]

In “Afro-Germans after 1945: The So-Called Occupation Babies,” Ayim defined racism as “an ideology that empowers one group to dominate economically, politically, and socially and to impose its own standards on others” (82). This is clearly seen happening in Namibia and other parts occupied by Germany and other imperial countries. I was hesitant to compare the racism in the United States to the racism in Germany for fear of minimizing or even invalidating the distinct experiences of Black Germans and Black Americans. However, it could be valuable to compare the reactions and ways that the countries themselves deal with historical and contemporary racism. Mainly, it was interesting—and very disappointing—to see how both countries on a “state” level, although acknowledging slavery and colonialism (usually to what I would consider a “small” extent), have failed to fully engage how the past has influenced racism today. For example, there are parallels between the controversy surrounding both the display of the confederate flag in the U.S., and the controversy of the street names in Wedding in Berlin.

There have been several initiatives to change the name of the streets—especially those like Petersallee and Lüderitz Straße—to names that commemorate Black individuals. However, because many residents are conservative and against the changes and because there are different opinions of what to change the street names to, this has not yet been accomplished. Josephine cited two reasons as to why it was hard to find alternative names for streets. For the changes to appease everyone, the jury discussing the potential changes has decided that white Germans would have to be able to easily pronounce the names of the people that the streets would be dedicated to and also that those people for whom the new streets would be named have to be internationally known. Considering the very western-centric view that many people in the world unquestioningly have, filling just these two criteria with Black activists has proven to be quite a challenge.

Still, there have been some initiatives to change the street names that have been successful, at least to an extent. For example, Josephine told us the story of Petersallee, named after Carl Peters, well known for his violent racist attitudes and behaviors during colonialism. However, it was rededicated to Hans Peter, who was known for helping Jewish people during the Third Reich. It is interesting that the narrative of colonialism—a narrative that strongly needs to be told—is cloaked behind the narrative of the Holocaust. I have noticed that the city of Berlin itself is in a way almost a monument to the horror of the Holocaust and the strong conviction that something like this can never happen again. And yet, conversations about colonialism have only recently begun to take form in mainstream society. In fact, an example of the disparity between which events Germany (many of its residents and the government) is both willing and unwilling to acknowledge in the public view is our last stop on our tour. Josephine showed us a plaque with information about German colonialism. There was graffiti present on one side of the plaque, some of which were partly covering a few words. Josephine mentioned that the government cares for the plaques that commemorate the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust, so there is clean-up of any graffiti that might be present. However, this plaque is funded privately, and so does not get the same treatment.

Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez

I want to conclude by noting that today, the influence of German colonialism is present in Namibia. Out of two million Namibian citizens, the 20,000 that are of German descent own 80% of the land. Also, the German language is commonly spoken there. However, despite the violent past of Germans in Namibia, the German government has failed to offer reparations for the Namibian people. Some argue that they already pay Namibia in the form of aid. However, that is not the same as acknowledging a violent colonial past. It is important for Germany, both the government and the German people, to acknowledge their role in colonialism and to strive towards a united Germany in which violence and discrimination against people of color is no longer an issue. In that way, Germany and the United States are very much alike.


Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez

Jannet Gutierrez, class of 2019, is a Neuroscience major at Colorado College. She is also planning on minoring in German, having studied German all throughout high school. After going to Germany for the first time in 2014, she became interested in German culture, especially the diversity of large cities such as Berlin. At CC, she works for the Theater Department and plays the violin in the orchestra.