German colonial history
“Widespread ignorance”

The Lüderitzstrasse in Berlin
The Lüderitzstrasse in Berlin | Photo (detail): © chrischerf

Germany was once a colonial power, but this fact is rarely the subject of public debate. That’s something Berlin historian Ulrich van der Heyden wants to change. In an interview he explains why historical exactness is crucial here.

Mr van der Heyden, you advocate renaming German streets that commemorate leading figures in Germany’s colonial history. Why?

People and events that are burdened by history – colonial or otherwise – should not be honoured by having a place named after them. For example, there’s a Lüderitzstrasse in several German cities, including the Berlin district of Wedding. In the early 20th century, they were named after Adolf Lüderitz who played a truly vile and contemptible role in appropriating African territories for what was then the German Reich.

How familiar are Germans with their colonial history?

What is striking in so many cases is the widespread ignorance on this matter. In the debate about the Lüderitzstrasse, for instance, those who oppose renaming the street often claim that no one knows exactly what Adolf Lüderitz did. And indeed, school textbooks have little to say about the role he played. That’s regrettable, and it’s something that we as historians are actively seeking to change. But for anyone who’s really interested in taking a critical look at colonial history, there are plenty of libraries with hundreds of books on the subject.

Historical reality and activism

Generally speaking, it’s the job of the local authorities to rename streets in Germany. On what basis could decisions about whether to rename streets be made there?

For cities like Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Osnabrück or Hanover, books or research findings are now available which deal with streets that are burdened by colonial history. In most cases, we are now in a position to talk frankly about Germany’s colonial history and its consequences and assess its negative impact. And some streets in Berlin have actually been renamed – for instance Gröbenufer.

This little street in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg is now called May-Ayim-Ufer. It was named after a German poet who was a champion of the Afro-German movement. But you’ve just criticised this renaming. Why?

I supported the cause but I consider it problematical that the wrong arguments were used in its defence. Gröbenufer was named after Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, who in the 17th century founded the colony Groß Friedrichsburg in what is now Ghana. The colony was involved in the slave trade and, for me, that alone would be reason enough to rename the street. But then along come the activists applying their contemporary standards of political correctness to history and claiming without evidence that von der Gröben was a slave trader and slave owner himself. There’s not a single shred of evidence to support that.

Private initiatives are raising public awareness

Couldn’t we take a pragmatic view and say that renaming this street is more important than providing the proper historical justification for doing so?

To use the words of the great British scholar Eric Hobsbawm: Why do we go on conducting historical research at all if it counts less than the supposed concern of activists? They say, “Things happened the way we think they did”, ignoring historical realities. Besides, such plans to rename streets frequently meet with resistance from local residents. One reason is the costs that may be involved. The other is a certain brand of German jingoism that occasionally comes to dominate such debates. Some people then use historical untruths to argue and polemicise. And we’re needlessly playing into their hands if we make patently false statements.

But isn’t it precisely such private initiatives that – at least occasionally – ensure that German colonial history is made the subject of a broader public debate?

That’s true. Among scholars, there have already been a number of such initiatives. But basically, that means newspaper articles and books. Outside scholarly circles, in politics for instance, it has had little effect.

Dealing with colonialism in terms of urban development

The City Palace is being rebuilt in the centre of Berlin. This palace was also the symbol of former German colonial power. Now it is to become a forum of art, culture and science, named after Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Is this a model for dealing critically with history in terms of urban development?

My purely personal opinion is that the money for this reconstruction could have been put to better use. Now we have to wait and see what becomes of what appear to be definitive plans to relocate the Ethnological Museum to the new City Palace. If, at the new location, there are efforts to address more clearly than in the past how some of the exhibits came into the museum’s possession – to clarify which items were actually stolen – then the City Palace could be a quite appropriate way to remember the colonial past and the negative aspects of the German Empire. The museums fear, though, that restitution claims could be made. Still, there needs to be an honest debate about this.

There is a private initiative that advocates building a memorial to German colonial history at the Humboldt-Forum. What do you think of this idea?

Yes, why not? Germans love memorials and monuments. But as a scholar I would say: Come on, folks, spend the money on research instead so we can have publications that throw light on what happened.

Professor Dr Dr Ulrich van der Heyden is a historian, political scientist and expert on the colonial history of Africa. His many publications include “Kolonialmetropole Berlin. Eine Spurensuche” (Colonial Metropolis Berlin. Searching for Clues) and “Kolonialismus hierzulande. Eine Spurensuche in Deutschland” (Colonialism in This Country. Searching for Clues in Germany), which are published by Verlag Berlin-Edition. Van der Heyden teaches at the Humboldt-Universität and as an outside lecturer at the Freie Universität in Berlin and is also a guest professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.