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.

A Visit to Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand

By Thabiso Ratalane

IMG_9324The weather was overcast today, and the clouds looked menacing. It was, however and thankfully, not a walking tour day. After a hearty lunch at Golden Rice, the FemGeniuses took to the Ubahn—destination Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (the German Resistance Memorial Center). There, we learned more about the heroic efforts of those Germans that chose to sacrifice their lives in order to see an end to the horrible Nazi regime. The priority and the urgency of the importance of commemorative narratives in the city focus primarily on museums and remembering the Jewish lives lost. Along these lines, Sabine Offe claims that they “tell the story of those murdered, and tell it in the country of the perpetrators.” The German Resistance Memorial, on the other hand, serves to celebrate German figures that worked fervently to oppose the Nazi regime, because the horrors of that époque seem to sometimes outweigh the heroic efforts of those that resisted. Tucked away at the historical, seemingly less touristy area of Berlin on Stauffenbergstraße, the center gave me a sense of the collective shame that the Germans typically feel regarding matters of the Holocaust.

IMG_9331We walked into the center from the courtyard, which we later learned was the site of the assassination of the two important figures that made an attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life: Claus von Stauffenberg and Georg Elser. Sylvia, our guide, told us that the resistance was multi-faceted. There were multiple groups of people and organizations that resisted the Nazi regime. These groups might not have necessarily shared the same philosophies, but they all had a common goal. For example, the curation of the center was organized around these groups, which included students, labor unions, artists, scholars, and people of the various religious faiths.

IMG_9320Sylvia made a point to let us know that the place was not a museum, but rather a historical site. I found this distinction important because of the other many museums around the city that are curated for the remembrance of Holocaust victims. I am of the opinion that this was a deliberate move so as not to take away from museums that acknowledge the many atrocities committed against Jews, perhaps motivated, as Offe points out, “a notion of guilt handed down to the second and third generations of a nation, the large majority of which was involved in and supported a system responsible for the mass murder of European Jews.”

nRegarding the role of women in the resistance, the first question asked before the tour began, Sylvia responded and confirmed that the roles that women played were limited, but pivotal. Women hid Jews from Nazis, gave food to the hungry, prepared stamps and couriered letters for distribution, risking their lives in the meantime. One important woman she pointed out was Liselotte Herrmann, who distributed leaflets against Nazism before Hitler came into power. She fled Humboldt University to the south of Germany to escape persecution and continue her work after Hitler came into power. She was caught, tried, and sentenced to death for investigating Germany’s militarism in an exposé article.

IMG_9328As Sylvia pointed out, in trying to garner as much support as conceivably possible, the National Socialist Party attempted to fool everyone into thinking they were socialist. However, many people didn’t realize that Hitler’s socialism relied heavily on discrimination and segregation. The party did get the support it needed, but soon received strong opposition as their motives became clearer. Along these lines, Sylvia explained the important role of churches during the Third Reich. She mentioned that the resistance remembrance was named “resistance of the Christian faith,” because of the churches’ involvement in Hitler’s government. The church had multiple roles to play; they both supported and opposed Nazism. Regarding support, the church was more willing to accept the Nazi regime, because it was anti-communist. This ensured the longevity of the church within the state. What they opposed, however, was the integration of the church into the state. The euthanasia program, a program to kill disabled people, homosexuals, and the so-called weak, also motivated some priests into protesting the government. Some priests did this openly, writing letters. Bernard Lichtenberg, for example, helped stop the program because of the power he had.

IMG_9326Students also played a paramount role in the resistance. As Michael Schmidtke points out, “Many students were also concerned about another reform plan of the Great coalition, that of the ‘emergency laws’” (79). Further, he writes, “President Paul von Hinderburg used them in 1930 and 1933 to create a government independent from parliament, after the democratic parties had lost the majority, and this had made it easier for Hitler to assume dictatorial power in 1933” (79). This led to the movement of the White Rose: students writing letters and pamphlets to people in how they can passively resist the regime. While we could not examine the entire 18-section exhibition of more than 6,000 photos and documents showing the diversity of German resistance, we got a holistic picture of the resistance from the groups that we toured.


ThabisoThabiso Ratalane is a rising senior from the city of Maseru in the Southern African enclave of Lesotho. She dabbles in French and International Political Economy major divisions at Colorado College. Thabiso is passionate about fashion, linguistics, politics, writing, and social justice for minority groups around the world. Thabiso idolizes Anna Wintour; she finds her strong will, tenacity, efficiency, and passion for what she does admirable, and regards Wintour as a champion for female empowerment. Thabiso’s passion for minority groups and how they navigate social spaces that alienate them made this course and Berlin a perfect fit to spend her first month of the Summer.

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“Berlin from Below: Dark Worlds”

By Melissa L. Barnes

UnterweltenThis evening, we attended a tour entitled “Berlin from Below: Dark Worlds.” Berliner Unterwelten offers five tours, and “Dark Worlds” showcases an underground museum of a civilian air raid shelter under a modern-day train station. We were not allowed to take pictures during the tour, because the tour company does not own the copyrights for the artifacts and does not own the complete rights to the air raid shelter. The tour company also does not receive government funding, so they rely solely on private funding, donations, and guided tour income.

This particular shelter was completed in 1942, and became a museum in 1999. The shelter has four levels, with a total of forty-eight rooms. Our tour guide also talked with us about the difference between civilian air raid shelters and bunkers. Bunkers were solely for military/defense use and were expensive to construct, because they use more steel—thicker walls and roofs—than civilian shelters and have a more chess board-like, square architecture. Generally, bunkers held about 200 people, while the civilian shelter we were in was designed to hold 1,300 people. Bunkers were designed to look like houses or simple buildings in order to distract and confuse countries that were attacking Germany from the air. Germany was not allowed to have an air force due to the Treaty of Versailles, so this was a well-known weakness utilized by the opposition.

Before 1941, there were no civilian air raid shelters, because the Nazi regime did not want to convey that there was any potential harm for civilians to worry about and, secretly, civilians were thought of as collateral damage during wartime. However, in 1941, it was clear that Berlin would be under continuous attack, and German citizens would be less cooperative if they were not given a “safe space” during the air raids. Before the civilian air raid shelters were constructed, the Nazi regime tested many different architectural designs: first with animals, then with people imprisoned in concentration camps. To this day, no one knows how many trials the Nazis completed before they were satisfied with the design of the air raid shelters.

The walls of the shelters were different lengths, each floor was built at a slope, and every door is facing a wall. If a bomb were dropped into the shelter the shockwaves of the explosion would destroy the whole shelter – whatever was left after the initial destruction of the bomb. The shelter was built in such a way, then, that the shockwave would not reach people two rooms away from the epicenter. Additionally, if any chemical weapons were dropped into the civilian shelter, the toxic gas used was usually heavier than air, so the chemical would float down into the lower areas of the shelter, saving the people in the higher levels. This especially illustrates Hitler’s belief that civilians are collateral damage.

BunkerIn each room, there is a room number and occupancy limit painted on a wall. However, when an air attack happened, civilians obviously did not care about the occupancy limit and tried to get into the shelter no matter what. The shelter is very spacious and each room looked like it could definitely hold more than the limit; but, ventilation for fresh air was only installed in nine of the forty-eight rooms. Hence, many people died from suffocation, because each room was sealed with thick doors. So, if there were too many people than the Nazi’s calculated air for, then the air would not reach everyone. At the end of the air raid, firefighters and police officers were sure to tell surviving civilians, “Remember, the Fürher has just saved you!”

Once the war was over, most men were dead, injured, elderly, or too young, so the women were expected to rebuild entire cities by hand. During this time period, unlike times before and during the war, women were not considered too weak to do a man’s job, but were expected to do so in order to provide for their children. They had to use their imaginations to build things from the remains of the war. For instance, they used bomb shells to make stoves, soldiers’ helmets to make pots and drainers/strainers for cooking, and rubber from tires to make shoes and insulation during harsh winters.

Speaking of the “end” of the war, forensic pathologists estimate that the war will not truly be over until all human remains are found and identified. Along these lines, there are still 3,000 live bombs within Germany’s soil that could be accidentally detonated. The detonators on the bombs have a life of 100 years, so they will remain live for about 30 more years. For these reasons, the government requires that police and forensic specialists examine all sites where new buildings will be constructed in order to ensure that no live bombs are near the area. We learned how important this is when our guide discussed the case of September 15, 1994, when a construction worker detonated an underground WWII bomb. This accident left 3 people dead and 17 people injured.

Throughout this tour, I was trying to imagine myself as a civilian whose daily routine included a trip to an air raid shelter about four times a day. This was challenging, because I also thought about some civilians’ cooperation and support of the war, racism, and genocide. Given the content of our course, I also wondered about the role of Black women after the war, especially whether or not they were expected to perform the same duties as other women—what happened to them during these times? We have learned during our seminars throughout this course that some, but by no means all, Black people were spared from murder and/or concentration camps. If Black people were still present in Germany, were they allowed to enter the civilian air raid shelters? Throughout this class, we have also discussed the importance of multiple perspectives of history, and I feel that popular narratives of the WWII period are dominated by the White civilian perspective, even if we are talking about the victims of WWII.

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Melissa IIIThis fall, Melissa will be starting her final year as a student at Colorado College, double-majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and Psychology. This fall, she is planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology.

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Africa in Wedding

By Blaise Yafcak

AIWWe started Monday morning with a tour of Wedding, a neighborhood in Berlin that most of us had been pronouncing wrong since day one (it’s pronounced “vedding,” for the record). Josephine Apraku was our tour guide. She gives around three tours a month, as do others in her organization, and between them all, there’s a tour given every day. There never used to be this much interest in tours, but the demand has grown in recent years. After a round of introductions, Josephine informed us that we were in the “African Quarter” of Berlin. Twenty thousand people with African passports live in Berlin, and many of them live here in Wedding. Many activists concerned with African migrants establish themselves in this neighborhood, as well.

The neighborhood is a bit of a contradiction in and of itself. All of the streets were named in the context of German colonialism; although, many of them are named for African countries or regions. Some of the names seem innocent, such as Usambara, named after a mountain range in Tanzania. However, some names are more explicitly controversial. The street where we started our tour, Ghanastraße, is said to be the only street named for celebrating decolonization. We stopped at the intersection of Ghanastraße and Swakopmunder Straße, the latter of which is named after a small town by the sea where the Germans established their first concentration camp.

PetersalleeWe then moved on to Nachtigalplatz, a small park named after Gustav Nachtigal, a German doctor and historian. Nachtigal studied medicine, and then went to Tunisia to practice medicine. He wrote books on his travels and the people he met. For his time, the books he wrote were remarkably neutral and free of racism. He is now known more as a historian than a doctor. The park nearby Nachtigalplatz was named for a black zookeeper who survived the Second World War, and wanted to create a zoo to display humans from the German colonies. Petersallee is regarded as one of the most controversial street names in Wedding. It was named after Carl Peters, whom the Nazis regarded as an important man for German colonialism. He was known to walk around towns in Africa in colonial attire and to talk about his racist ideas and what he was trying to establish regarding German colonies. More notoriously, when Peters found out that one of his slaves had a relationship with another slave, he had them both executed and burned down the town where they lived. The street has not yet been renamed. Rather, the city found a new patron for the street, Hans Peters.

There have been many attempts led by NGOs and other organizations to petition for a renaming of many of the streets in Wedding, especially a street our tour guide called M-Straße. In German, the M-word, mohr, is equivalent to the N-word in America. However, despite lawsuits and pressure, nothing is being done in the government to change the names of the streets. There is currently a law in place that says if a street was named during the Nazi era there must be a perspective shift regarding the history behind the street name. For instance, Hans Peters helped the Jews flee during the Nazi regime. In this case, there has been a slight perspective change but not quite enough. Some organizations are also arguing that more streets should be renamed after important women. A right wing group has argued that the names of the streets should not be changed for a few reasons. They say that no one knows the meaning behind the current names of the streets. They also say that Germans don’t go to Africa and change the names of their streets, so why should Africans get to come to Germany and rename German streets? This argument is simply laughable, especially because there are streets in former German colonies in Africa with German names.

IMG_3408There is a fight to make this neighborhood an area of commemoration, but there are questions regarding whose stories should be remembered and shared and what should be commemorated. A sign that we came to at the end of the tour marks this struggle. The sign tells two stories about Germany’s relationship with Africa—one side was written by NGOs and the ISD and the other side by various political parties. Somewhat surprisingly, the two stories do not contradict each other too much, but they do reflect important differences regarding interpretations of Germany’s relationship with Africa.

The sign, then, brought us to the end of the tour, and we headed to a restaurant for some wonderful Turkish food.

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BlaiseBlaise is a rising senior at Colorado College studying Biology and Feminist and Gender Studies. She likes road trips, coffee, and Harry Potter.