How Activists Are Radically Interrogating Berlin’s Colonial Past—and Reshaping Its Future

Nestled alongside the River Spree south of Berlin’s city center, Treptower Park is home to green lawns, riverboat rides and runners pounding their way along the waterside path. Summer days usually see sunbathers enjoying the views of the leafy landscape, or tourists in awe of the Soviet War Memorial’s commanding centerpiece: a 12-meter tall statue of a Soviet soldier, built in the park in 1949 in remembrance of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in World War II.

The memorial is one of several physical reminders of Germany’s 20th century history in public spaces throughout the city, among them Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial. Now, a group of activists, artists and educators known as Dekoloniale is working to draw attention to another part of the country’s past: its dark history of colonialism, starting with the story of Treptower Park itself. This is the place where it all began. German Colonial Exhibition of 1896, the park became the setting for reconstructions of villages of Germany’s overseas colonies across the African continent. Not only were these model villages on display—so were 106 people from these communities, unwilling and unwitting participants who were uprooted from their homes and “exhibited” for audiences in Berlin.
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Monument to a Soviet soldier in Berlin on the Victory day, Germany
Getty Images/iStockphotoVictory Day at Treptower park in May 2015: Visitors lay flowers at the Liberator Soldier monument

Now, 125 years on, the members of Dekoloniale are commemorating the inhabitants of the Colonial Exhibition’s villages through a new permanent exhibition at Treptow museumThis book describes their lives as well as their resistance to oppression. The digital launch of the website was made possible by the Pandemic. An anniversary of the Berlin ConferenceThe new Treptow exhibition and a program of events that accompanied it, including a tour around the city of historic sites from the imperial past, marked Dekoloniale’s first host of physical events. “It’s really about implementing a new form of remembrance culture, and also showing people in a very physical way how present that past is, and how much it still shapes the present,” says journalist and curator Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard, one of Dekoloniale’s directors.

She’s speaking not just about the new exhibition, which opened on Oct. 15, but the overall work of Dekoloniale—which launched last year and will continue through 2024, constituting perhapsthe most ambitious such initiative to date to promote understanding of aEuropean capital city’s colonial history. Dekoloniale, a group of Berlin-based organisations working together to promote postcolonial education and racial injustice activism, is trying to make colonial history more understandable through an interactive website. Interactive mapping now available Tool analyzing sites that have imperial history and working with museums to develop policies about exhibitions of artifacts. Festivals and exhibitions are launched in public places with the intent of challenging German colonialism.

With a €2 million ($2.3 million) investment from the Senate Department for Culture and Europe, and €1 million ($1.2 million) from Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation, the group has ambitious plans to interrogate the city’s painful history and legacy of imperialism and racism, and forge a way forward for its future. “These calls are there because [the past] has been ignored for so long,” says Anna Yeboah, Dekoloniale’s project coordinator. “Germany is no longer in the position where it can ignore what’s happening internationally.”

The Past and Present: Linking

Binh Truong Xinhua—eyevine/ReduxOn May 8, 2020, a woman laid flowers before a Soviet soldier statue at Treptower Park’s Soviet Memorial.

In June of last year, 15,000 people lived in the area. attended anti-racism protests in Berlin’s city centerFollowing the murder of George Floyd in U.S. Ofuatey -Alazard is the CEO and founder of Each One Teach One. Each One Teach One provides education and empowerment projects for Black communities. She says that her company was overwhelmed with requests to interview throughout 2020. Ofuatey-Alazard leads Dekoloniale’s In[ter]Inventions The strand of activities focuses on artistic and cultural festivals that examine and question colonial history. These conversations are the result of years of activism, she says. She also points out how this history has been often denied. “There have been people on the ground in Berlin and Germany who have been fighting these fights and addressing these issues for decades,” she says.

Among some, including Dekoloniale’s organizers, there’s a sense that Germany has made excuses for its relatively short overseas colonial empire project compared to other European nations. Germany’s 19th century empire-building ramped up after the 1884 Berlin Conference, spanning parts of East, West and central Africa including present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Namibia and Tanzania. All its colonies overseas, including the ones in China and the Pacific, were taken by Germany at the close of World War I. Although the German Empire’s violence was brief, it was quite brutal. Trauma left scarring marksFor Black and African diaspora communities that continue to feel today. Historians have also noted that Germany’s colonial-era atrocities, which included extermination campaigns, concentration camps and mass violence, were Precursors of forms of abuseHitler enacted Nazism during the Holocaust.

“You’ve got this resistance against taking on responsibility for it, for example, like in the discussions Concerning the Genocide in Namibia,” says historian Christian Kopp, who founded Berlin Postkolonial e.V, one of Dekoloniale’s project partners. Kopp and his colleagues organize walking tours around the city to bring colonial history to people through explaining architecture and street names, and he is the project lead for Dekoloniale’s [Hi]Stories strand is the part that involves the mapping project. His positive efforts to rename, reclaim German public space are also highlighted by him and other Dekoloniale participants. For example, last year, there was a Berlin street named after a racist phrase was retitled Anton Wilhelm Amo Strasse after Germany’s first African-born scholar. He says that even these initiatives have been met with resistance from conservative media commentators and historians.

Dekoloniale has also not been protected from the backlash. This is not just through newspapers columns. The group’s offices, located on Berlin’s major thoroughfare of Wilhelmstrasse, have been targeted several times with racist slurs and messages on its windows. “People want to tell us they know what we are doing and that they are watching us,” says Kopp, adding that Black activists and colleagues, including those leading guided tours throughout the city, are reporting an increasing number of physical and verbal attacks. “Though there is progress, the resistance against this progress is getting more violent.”

Through their work, Dekoloniale’s project leaders are keen to draw the link between these painful histories and present injustices. “To an extent, the government does not want to create a link between the Imperial history of violence and the racism happening on the ground,” says Ofuatey-Alazard. In recent years, reports about discrimination in Germany and incidents involving racism have increased. The most recent report by Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency disclosed that in 2020, the agency had received 2,101 enquiries regarding discrimination on racist grounds or the basis of ethnicity, representing a year-on-year increase of almost 79 percent, a larger increase than in the previous four years combined.

‘Cracking open perceptions’

BERLIN — Demonstration in front of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Germany on July 20, 2021.Mustafah Abdulaziz for TIME
Mustafah Abdulaziz for TIMEDemonstration before the Humboldt Forum Berlin (Germany) on July 20, 2021

The German government will be launching its May campaign Recognized its atrocities from the colonial era against the Herero and Nama people in modern-day Namibia for the first time, calling the massacres of an estimated 70,000 people a “genocide,” but stopped short of a Definitive and undiluted apology. The deal between the two countries was applauded in Germany but decried by Herero Chiefs and Nama Chiefs who were not part of the final negotiations.

These voices are to be heard in the work of others—even, and especially, when government officials fail to do so— is part of Dekoloniale’s goal. In as part of In[ter]Inventions Cologne, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Zambian women artists were invited to Berlin for a summer residency to produce work that was influenced by colonial past. The October programming will unveil these works. It’s one of the ways in which Dekoloniale’s project leaders want to collaborate with activists, academics, thinkers and artists of African descent, and especially those from former German colonial sites. Those transnational links matter a great deal, as Ofuatey-Alazard says she “absolutely demands and wishes for” a center in the city of Berlin that deals with colonial histories and repercussions, with related centers in the former German colonies, to research these legacies and impacts.

Kopp leads walking tours and an online mapping project that features the voices of diaspora people. On Dekoloniale’s website, a series of videos presented by local community members, experts and activists explore the history behind certain sites, including the Deutsche Bank building, now the Federal Ministry of Health. Israel Kaunatjike from Berlin, an activist for Herero, discusses the role of the bank in financing a major railway line that runs through Namibia.

Map It serves two purposes: a guide for upcoming events and a living archive. “The map is a platform that renders visible everything that we do,” says Ofuatey-Alazard, pointing to the map’s construction, which, unlike most maps, does not position Europe at its center. “We are playing with people’s brains and emotions, because we want them to unlearn certain ways that are automated, crack open certain perceptions and lay open structures of violence and history.”

In a similar way, the exhibition at Treptow is not ‘completed’—part of the exhibition space is open and empty, to provide room for more collaboration, research and different interpretations of history. “This is an active part of making the memory culture and one that is rooted in the present, not only in the past,” says Yeboah. It’s quite a departure from affairs at the controversial and beleaguered Humboldt Forum; a major museum in the heart of Berlin that was the site of protests upon its opening in July this year. The major cultural destination has received criticism for its approach to displaying colonial-era artifacts, and for Yeboah, that backlash is a sign that grassroots work and public pressure can “change the discourse very rapidly,” she says. “I think I have not read even one positive article on the Humboldt Forum, not even in the conservative press.”

By the mapping project’s end in 2024, Dekoloniale hopes to have launched around 150 walking tours to showcase more hidden histories, with at least half of these stories representing those of resistance. “What’s happening a lot is that if German people are covering colonialism, they focus on the violence and the violators,” says Yeboah. “The resistance part is much more interesting, and tells us a lot more about what we need to know now to tackle these current problems.”

Momentum Beyond Berlin

A scene from Dekoloniale’s recent exhibition

There are many ways to question the past. These include proposals for changing school curriculums to teach about race and empire. Resurgent scrutiny of restitutionSince June 2020, several western European countries have seen a revival in the energy of those looted items. Madrid activists have called for a World Heritage Site, similar to Treptower Park. Recognize its past as a human Zoo. “The things that we are talking about, I think they are happening in every city, in very different ways,” said Ofuatey-Alazard in November 2020, just after Dekoloniale’s digital launch. You can take London as an example, where protests centered on Black Lives Matter had taken over the U.K. Slave traders’ statues toppledThey left behind a trail of conversations the nation’s dark historyMainstream attention was galvanized.

In the same week that German’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement regarding Namibia, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged France’s “Unspeakable responsibility” in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, yet also did not offer a full apology. And in the U.K., imperial history itself has become a lightning rod for political debate, with resistance to fair and nuanced interrogation largely coming from the right-wing press and government, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who claimed in October that British history and cultural heritage is at risk of “cancel culture iconoclasm.” But that doesn’t mean demand from society to learn about the past isn’t there: in June, the U.K. Parliament debated To include a petition that was signed to 268,000 by people around the world British colonial history As part of the compulsory school curriculum, grassroots campaignsKeep calling for change.

Dekoloniale hopes that other fellow European cities might take note of their work, and commit to an investment—there are already conversations around a potential similar initiative in Munich. “Among young people particularly, there’s a greater interest in understanding the deep roots of this, because some of them are truly disgusted and do not want to be part of systems like this. And so I think there is an eagerness to really comprehend it,” says Ofuatey-Alazard. Groups like the one she, Yeboah and Kopp are part of are coming together to address decolonization meaningfully—not as a fad or trend or buzzword of the moment. “It’s about righting some wrongs, and giving access and space to many more voices. It’s just the appropriate thing to do and the necessary thing to do.”


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