Wandering around the northeast part of Berlin’s Wedding neighbourhood, it would be easy not to realize you have entered the city’s so-called African Quarter. The mix of early 20th century apartment buildings and communist tower blocks resembles many other parts of the German capital. Only a glance at the street signs offers a hint to an unexpected history.
It wasn’t always so. The creation of Berlin’s African Quarter in the late 1800s was originally linked to the establishment of a ‘Volkerschau,’ a human exhibition in the area, where people from the colonies were brought from their countries and held in zoo-like conditions, in order for Berlin residents to become familiar with their physical aspect and cultures. Kamerunstrasse and Togostrasse were the first streets to receive their names in 1899.
Later, came Kongostrasse as well as monikers to celebrate the colonial figures such as Nachtigalstresse. Gustav Nachtigal was the second founder of German colonies in Africa, annexing Togo and Cameroon for the empire. He led a bloody campaign against Cameroonians who opposed colonial rule.
The problematic history that is celebrated by the neighbourhood’s street signs is little recognized by local residents, let alone further afield because German’s colonial history gains little space in school curricula. Which is where PostKolonial comes in.
The group, co-ordinated by historian Christian Kopp, aims to inform and encourage debate around some of the problematic issues of race, identity and historical legacy raised by these monuments to the past. They propose adding commentaries alongside the street signs to recognise the different historical perspectives and replacing those commemorating figures of colonial repression with the names of their victims or opponents.
“There is still very little awareness about the colonial context of these street names,” observes Kopp. “Many do not see more than a geographic reference to Africa, Asia or Oceania.”