The Big Hole in Germany’s Nazi Reckoning? Its Colonial History

Joshua Kwesi Aikins giving a tour of Berlin’s African quarter, where street names are linked to Germany’s colonial past in Africa.CreditCreditLena Mucha for The New York Times

BERLIN — It is, at a glance, an unremarkable street — roughly a quarter-mile long, cutting through a grassy knoll the size of a couple of basketball courts.

Yet to Joshua Kwesi Aikins, this street, Petersallee, in Berlin’s African Quarter, strikes a deep emotional blow.

In 1939, National Socialists dedicated the street to Dr. Carl Peters, a leader of Germany’s violent colonial efforts in Africa.

“They said, ‘Hey, this guy was one of the founders of our empire and we have to honor him,’ ” said Mr. Aikins, 38, a German social scientist and activist with Ghanaian roots. “This is actually Nazi propaganda.”

Germany has long been lauded for the way it has confronted its Nazi history, from issuing formal apologies to paying reparations to victims. But the country’s reckoning with its Nazi past is not as complete as might be assumed, activists and historians say.

Germany has yet to come to terms with its violent colonial legacy in Africa, which laid the groundwork for and inspired Nazi atrocities, they say.

Running from 1884 to 1918, that colonial history was relatively short, compared with that of other European countries, but still scarring. German colonizers killed tens of thousands during their reign over all or part of modern-day Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Namibia.

Street signs and other memorials honoring German colonizers still remain scattered throughout the country. Only a smattering of colonial history is taught in German schools. The government has not apologized for the nation’s colonial crimes, and it only recently started referring to the killings as genocide.

The entrance to the subway station Mohrenstrasse, or Mohren Street, in Berlin. Mohren, generally considered a racist insult, is an old German word that refers to dark-skinned people.CreditLena Mucha for The New York Times

Germany’s reticence “speaks a lot about the stance that German society, or European society, takes vis-à-vis the colonial history,” said Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard, a cultural activist who is from Germany and whose father is Ghanaian. “They still adhere to the myth of the civilizing mission. They do not frame colonialism as a regime of violence and domination.”

Those attitudes appear to be slowly changing.

Berlin officials agreed a couple of months ago to rename Petersallee and two other streets honoring German colonizers, much to the delight of activists who have spent years lobbying for the changes. The streets will be named after African resistance fighters.

Mr. Aikins, a longtime proponent of renaming, said the name changes were a start. “We need a citywide concept of commemoration that actually enacts this shift of perspective,” he said. “Moving away from remembering through the colonial lens to remembering through the perspective of remembering anticolonial resistance.”

This year, Germany’s federal governing coalition for the first time called for an examination of the country’s colonial history, which includes researching whether African artifacts housed at cultural institutions were illegally acquired during the colonial era.

The German government is in its third year of negotiations with Namibia over how to make up for crimes against the former colony, where tens of thousands died under German occupation.

Ruprecht Polenz, a former member of Parliament who is representing Germany in the negotiations, said the two sides were closing in on an agreement that could lay the groundwork for an official apology.

The agreement would call the German killings a genocide; outline the creation of a foundation to increase social and cultural engagement between the countries; and call for extra support for Namibian communities particularly affected by the genocide with programs that, for example, provide job training, housing and access to electricity.

“Germany learned from the first half of the 20th century, and we could only learn because we confronted the past and dealt with it,” Mr. Polenz said. “And the colonial history also belongs to this past, and we want to take responsibility for it.”

Still, the violent anti-immigrant protests that broke out recently in the eastern German city of Chemnitz have sowed some doubts over how much the nation has actually learned from its past. To many activists, the racism formed during the colonial era laid the foundation for the racism that the country is still struggling with today.


When Mohrenstrasse got its name in either the late-17th or early-18th century, Brandenburg-Prussia, which was in present day Germany, was profiting from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.CreditLena Mucha for The New York Times

“The French, the English and the Germans were all together in their racist thinking,” said Christian Kopp, a historian with Berlin Postcolonial, an activist organization. “In that sense, the history of National Socialism needs a global explanation.”

Colonial-era Germans set a brutal example for the Nazis to follow.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a German general, Lothar von Trotha, issued an extermination order for the Herero, a native people of what is now Namibia, using a tactic that resurfaced decades later: concentration camps.

Within three and a half years, four-fifths of the Herero people, and half of the Nama, another ethnic group, were dead, according to David Olusoga, a historian and co-author of “The Kaiser’s Holocaust.”

In addition to the tens of thousands of deaths in Namibia, at least 100,000 East African resistance fighters known as the Maji-Maji died in a war to defend their territory against German forces.

German colonizers took skulls and human remains from Africa back to Germany for research, using a junk science that claims to be able to judge personality, intelligence and other characteristics by the shape of one’s skull. That also became part of the racist Nazi ideology.

The Nazi vision of global expansion and domination was inspired in part by the efforts of German colonizers, historians said. A flyer from 1935 advertises a “grand colonial exhibit.” There is a picture of a Nazi flag waving over Africa with the message, “This is also our living space.”

In 1939, the National Socialists named a part of Berlin’s African Quarter “The Permanent Colony of Togo.”

Arguments over eradicating old relics fall on questions of history and racial meaning.

Black-led activist groups have been lobbying for years for the renaming of Mohrenstrasse, or Mohren Street, in Berlin. Mohren, generally considered a racist insult, is an old German word that refers to dark-skinned people.

Those for and against the renaming dispute how the street got its name — either to honor visiting Africans or to belittle those brought as servants to territory that is now Germany.


Activist groups have been lobbying for years for the renaming of Mohrenstrasse.CreditLena Mucha for The New York Times

But those who want to keep the name argue that removing it would be akin to erasing history. The name, they say, could be used as a tool to teach about the nation’s colonial past.

When the street got its name, in either the late-17th or early-18th century, Brandenburg-Prussia, which was in present day Germany, was profiting from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

But, activists argue, preserving and teaching history can be accomplished without keeping a racist insult in a public space.

“People of African descent, African people, were and to an extent are still being considered as less human,” Ms. Ofuatey-Alazard said.

Last year, the Nama and Herero sued the German government in federal court in New York, seeking reparations. The case is pending, but the reparations question has been one sticking point in the negotiations with Namibia, Mr. Polenz said.

While Germany sees a moral and political obligation to atone for the past, reparations, he said, were a legal remedy that the government did not feel was necessary. He also said the investments Germany was willing to make in Namibia were akin to reparations.

The German government recently returned remains stolen during the colonial era to a Namibian delegation. It was the third time Germany has made such a gesture, but it has not been without controversy.

Activists criticized the German government for not inviting certain Nama and Herero leaders to the ceremony. The first time Germany returned remains, in 2011, activists taunted a government minister because they were upset that Germany was not also issuing an apology.

There remains skepticism that the country will come to terms with its colonial past. Negotiations with Namibia have dragged on for longer than the German government had predicted. Critics have faulted the government for not dealing directly with the Nama and Herero, minority ethnic groups that have been at odds with their country’s leaders over the colonial question.

“We urgently need a big, courageous, political signal and we need a solution to the question of the Herero genocide,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, an African history professor at the University of Hamburg. “We need a central place for remembrance and research of colonial history.”

Follow John Eligon on Twitter: @jeligon

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Colonial Past Weighs on Germany. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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