Interview with Joshua Kwesi Aikins
“Renarrating the History of Racism and Colonialism in Germany”
Colonialism is still present in German cities: Until the Nazi period streets were given names with a colonial background. Joshua Kwesi Aikins, a political scientist and activist with Ghanaian-German background campaigns for the renaming of these streets together with the association Berlin-Postkolonial.
Mr. Aikins, how does the colonial past manifest in Germany today?
In cities like Berlin and Munich you find African quarters. Streets and squares are named after places in Africa with a connection to colonial history. You find Togo streets or Swakopmund streets. This is the place in Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa), where one of the first concentration camps was built. The place reminds one of the genocide of the Herero and Nama. However, many streets honour colonialists as well, for instance the Peters Avenue in Berlin.
Who is he?
Carl Peters was one of the cruelest German colonialists. Even before Germany officially became a colonial power, he staked land claims in East Africa as a private person – with the help of a violent troop of mercenaries and fraudulent contracts. Later he was prosecuted in Germany because he had his African servants murdered. He conducted a coerced affair with a female servant and she in turn with the male servant.
Were these servants relevant for the courts?
No. But there were English and French witnesses. And since the colonial powers were in competition for Africa and since England and France accused Germany of lacking colonial competence, this incident was extremely damaging for the reputation.
Strong institutional racismAnd yet roads were named after Peters?
Yes, but only during National Socialism. And this shows a continuity of German history.
Can we see more of these continuities in everyday life?
In our culture the image of a white Germany is handed down. There are the whites and the others, who are considered inferior or underdeveloped. Allegedly they do not belong. This creates a self perception based on feelings of superiority – and a structure in which these ideas are passed on. Nearly everybody refers to a treasure of prejudice, even without being racist. These patterns can be traced far back into the past. They were already developed in the 16th century at the time of the Brandenburg enslavement trade and were passed on via the colonialism of the Weimar Republic and National Socialism until the present.
Are we racists?
Germany is a country with strong structural and institutional racism. This is frequently not all due to the bad faith of individuals. On the contrary, there is racism that emerges without conscious racist action.
How does that manifest in everyday life?
I experience it continuously. Mostly in the shape of racist-motivated police checks. Often I as an Afro-German am the only one in a train who is checked. That is a form of institutional racism that does not depend on consciously racists actions of the policeman checking people. The result of this image of self and other is racist unequal treatment: people who do not fit into what is constructed as the whitenation, are checked.
What exactly is your objective?
I want to change that. It is important to tell the history of racism and colonialism in Germany anew. There are many people with a positive image of colonial history. For example in Berlin I conducted a guided tour through the African quarter, where we went into the „Permanent Colony Togo“, which is an allotment association. The name „Permanent Colony Togo“ refers to the colonial period. This allotment was given this name during the NS period. It was the aim of the Nazis to regain the colonies. The name was a positive referral to NS propaganda and colonial remembrance.
How can we change that?
I think that will be a long, uncomfortable process. If we confront this we realise that we have certain privileges that are owed to the disadvantages of others.
We have to pay reparationsWhich privileges?
One point is that we live in a formerly colonising industrial nation that until today is tied into a network of economic relations. That ensures that primary resources from the former colonies are still processed here and then sent back to the country of origin. As consumer products. We profit from this.
Back to the question how we can change this.
By paying reparations and by changing our mode of action. That may even be a symbolic act, just like changing road names.
Is that enough?
No, that is not the only necessary reparation, but one of them. It is important that a street is not only renamed, but reminds us of those who have fought against colonialism or racism.
Have there been renamings?
Yes, in Berlin and Munich. In Munich the Von-Trotha-Street is now Hererostreet. Von Trotha was the commander of the German protection force in German Southwest Africa. He is co-responsible for the genocide in present-day Namibia. Yet, some roads have simply been rededicated. That is not acceptable.
Yes, let's take again the Peters Avenue in Berlin: when in the 1980s people protested that they did not want a road that was named after him, the municipality simply looked for another Peters and rededicated the road. But it was obvious to everybody that the road was named after Carl Peters who has murdered people in Africa. I have long campaigned for another renaming.
For which one?
The former Gröben-Embankment in Berlin is now called May-Ayim-Embankment. A plaque has also been attached to explain why the road was renamed.