“Carrot Street’’? Passers-by gaze quizzically at the road sign in Berlin’s city centre. Looking closer, it becomes apparent that someone has painted an umlaut over the “o’’ of ‘Mohrenstrasse’, changing it from ‘Moor street’, a term referring to the Black slaves brought to Berlin, to ‘Möhrenstrasse’, or ‘Carrot Street’. Further down the road, a banner over the Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn station reads “George-Floyd Strasse”.
The defacing of street-signs is the work of anti-racism campaigners who demand that Germany make amends for its colonial past. They have gained strength with the global Black Lives Matter protest movement. On July 3rd they scored a notable victory. Berlin’s public-transport authority announced it would change the name of Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn station to Glinkastrasse station, after another street nearby (which honours the Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka).
This is a good first step, but far from enough. Germany may not be the most prominent of European colonial powers, in part because its venture was relatively short: Germany had to surrender its African territories after the first world war. But its colonies were extensive, including Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia. And its rule was often brutal. Like their European rivals, German troops seized land, forced local populations into slavery and did not hesitate to crush those who resisted them. In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of modern-day Namibia rebelled. In response, German forces conducted what many regard as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Many German colonisers are still exalted in Berlin’s streets. Apart from Mohrenstrasse, the Berlin Development Policy Council (BER), an anti-racism pressure group, has singled out at least 10 streets in Berlin that honour people known principally or solely as colonialists. Only one has been changed: Gröbenstrasse, named after Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, who set up the “Großfriedrichsburg” fortress in modern-day Ghana, a transit point for slaves shipped to Europe, was renamed to honour May Ayim, a post-war Afro-German activist.
Many local residents resist such changes. One residents’ organisation argues that renaming streets is “a waste of taxpayers’ money on senseless and ineffective symbolism”. Yet, Berlin’s street names have been changed many times in the past. The Mohrenstrasse underground used to be “Kaiserhof’’, after a hotel close by associated with the Nazis. In 1950, the East German authorities named it after Ernst Thӓlmann (a communist leader executed by the Nazis), then Otto Grotewohl (another communist leader). It reverted to Mohrenstrasse after Germany’s reunification.
Some worry that renaming streets means ignoring the colonial past. The answer to that concern is to pick a name that will recall the period but offer a new perspective, perhaps one that honours the victims rather than the perpetrators. For instance, many campaigners want Mohrenstrasse to be named after Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was forcibly brought to Germany in 1707 as a child from modern-day Ghana and became a philosopher of renown.
Berlin’s transport company argues that ‘’stations need to follow the map of the city. We cannot name the station Anton Wilhelm Amo Strasse, because that street does not exist.” Time, then, to change the name of Mohrenstrasse itself. An added reason is that the idea of Glinkastrasse has upset Jewish groups, who point out that Glinka was anti-Semitic.
Given the inevitable flaws of most historical figures, some argue that existing names should be left; instead, explanatory plaques could be added beneath the street names and statues of the most notorious figures. In Britain, the mayor of Liverpool, once Europe’s most important slave port, has suggested doing just that. The other way around would be better: rename the streets and have explanatory plaques explaining the change.
Changing street names is just a start. Most important is that the misdeeds of colonialism be remembered - not just in street furniture, but also in schoolbooks and university curricula.
In German schools, history classes focus on the Third Reich and skim over the colonial period. Yet a growing number of historians argue that colonialism and Nazism are intimately bound together. Ideas of racial superiority that spread in German society during the colonial period overlap with Nazi ideology.
Post-war Germany has made admirable efforts to atone for the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. The memorials, the brass cobblestones outside the homes of murdered Jews, and more, are evidence of how Germany has sought to acknowledge the wounds it has caused to others. Germany is better placed than most countries to make amends for colonialism. Its national identity is not bound up with the memory of an empire, as is the case in France and Britain. By coming to terms with the other aspect of its guilty past, Germany can set an example to the rest of Europe.