Series “Word-Breaks” Fremdenführer*in

Traces of the colonial past in the German capital: Sign of the allotment garden association Togo in Togostraße in the African quarter in Berlin-Wedding, taken in 2019
Traces of the colonial past in the German capital: Sign of the allotment garden association Togo in Togostraße in the African quarter in Berlin-Wedding, taken in 2019 | Photo (detail): Sascha Steinach © picture alliance/dpa-Zentralbild

Quite a number of words are still firmly established in German language use today – even though they came into existence at a time that barely has anything to do with our diverse present. In this series, Elisabeth Wellershaus tries to fathom them out and reinterpret them from a decolonial perspective. She starts off in March with the term Fremdenführer*in.

These are some of the earliest scenes in my memories of travelling. That wonderful bouncing with which the hovercraft transported us from Ischia to the Italian mainland. The almost infinite climb up Vesuvius and the fried egg that was made for us in the heat at the crater’s edge. More than anything the cheery Fremdenführer, or tour guide, who brought us back down after the egg trick. The emphatic advice he gave us at the bottom: “Please look after your valuables. It’s very dangerous here.”
 
The memories of how  “die Fremde – the foreign place” was explained to me on my first and only package tour, have stayed with me ever since. Memories of a time in which “Fremdheit – foreignness” still seemed to be a clear-cut thing. Over centuries Western travellers had worked their way unchallenged through the “exoticism” of other cultures, Eurocentric perspectives set the tone in science and travel literature. So our state-certified German Fremdenführer chatted openly about the “disconcerting situation” in Italy.
 
But actually we were the ones being socially conspicuous. The German tour group that invaded Naples in 1979 and, guided by a “Führer”, stood marvelling at “somewhere else”. Europeans from the Mediterranean countries had been making their home in Germany for the past 20 years or so, some of them having arrived via what was termed the “Naples gateway”. As so called “Gastarbeiter*innen – migrant workers” they were needed, but were only accepted with caution by society. The fact that these newcomers were the same people who played the extras in a touristic setting that various Germans spent their summers in seemed of negligible interest. Because in pre-globalised times being foreign was an issue even amongst Europeans.
 
Our propensity for things foreign has remained to this day, even though travellers have now explored almost every corner of the Earth. Internally, Europe is no longer defined by hard borders or cultural schisms – despite its damaged community. And as a result we have simply shifted the feelings of foreignness elsewhere. Projected it onto other people who are now being made into outsiders in countries like Germany because of their religion, origins, language, customs, skin colours or names.
 
Resentment towards headscarf-wearing teachers, African “economic refugees” or Arabic-speaking schoolyard thugs tend to be justified in media or pub conversations as “obvious differences”. Though historical backgrounds, the devaluation of entire cultures to preserve global power relations, are less frequently encouraged.
  • Postcard 'German Colonial Exhibition' Berlin. For the opening of the trade exhibition in Treptower Park on 3 May 1896. colour lithograph akg-images © picture alliance
    Postcard 'German Colonial Exhibition' Berlin. For the opening of the trade exhibition in Treptower Park on 3 May 1896. colour lithograph
  • European travellers in Egypt on camels led by fellahs in Gizeh in front of the Great Sphinx with the Pyramid of Cheops in the background. Photo (stereoscopic image), anonymous, undated, 1880s. Berlin, Collection Archive for Art and History (Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte). akg-images © picture-alliance
    European travellers in Egypt on camels led by fellahs in Gizeh in front of the Great Sphinx with the Pyramid of Cheops in the background. Photo (stereoscopic image), anonymous, undated, 1880s. Berlin, Collection Archive for Art and History (Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte).
  • Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (New Guinea) as a protectorate of the German Empire 1885-1919. The Head of the German Colonial Department Hans August Lorenz Klink accompanied by a local team on an expedition. Photo, anonymous, undated (before 1897), handwritten inscription: “Expedition Klink”. From an album with mainly ethnological photographs taken on various expeditions to the interior of Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (Expeditions Hans August Lorenz Klink, Wilhelm Dammköhler and Ramu-Expedition of 1896), page 13. Berlin, Collection Archive for Art and History (Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte). akg-images © picture-alliance
    Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (New Guinea) as a protectorate of the German Empire 1885-1919. The Head of the German Colonial Department Hans August Lorenz Klink accompanied by a local team on an expedition. Photo, anonymous, undated (before 1897), handwritten inscription: “Expedition Klink”. From an album with mainly ethnological photographs taken on various expeditions to the interior of Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (Expeditions Hans August Lorenz Klink, Wilhelm Dammköhler and Ramu-Expedition of 1896), page 13. Berlin, Collection Archive for Art and History (Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte).
  • Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (New Guinea) as a protectorate of the German Empire 1885-1919. The Head of the German Colonial Department, Hans August Lorenz Klink (left) on expedition with a local escort team and ox cart. Photo, anonymous, undated (before 1897), handwritten inscription: “Expedition Klink”. From an album with mainly ethnological photographs taken on various expeditions to the interior of Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (Expeditions Hans August Lorenz Klink, Wilhelm Dammköhler and Ramu-Expedition of 1896), page 13. Berlin, Collection Archive for Art and History (Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte). akg-images © picture-alliance
    Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (New Guinea) as a protectorate of the German Empire 1885-1919. The Head of the German Colonial Department, Hans August Lorenz Klink (left) on expedition with a local escort team and ox cart. Photo, anonymous, undated (before 1897), handwritten inscription: “Expedition Klink”. From an album with mainly ethnological photographs taken on various expeditions to the interior of Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land (Expeditions Hans August Lorenz Klink, Wilhelm Dammköhler and Ramu-Expedition of 1896), page 13. Berlin, Collection Archive for Art and History (Sammlung Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte).
  • The memorial plaque for the African human rights activist Martin Dibobe (1876-1922) from Cameroon at his last home in Berlin, inaugurated in 2016. Martin Dibobe worked his way up in Germany from conductor to train driver. Nevertheless, he did not feel respected, and with a petition he defended himself against racism. Thilo Rückeis TSP © picture-alliance
    The memorial plaque for the African human rights activist Martin Dibobe (1876-1922) from Cameroon at his last home in Berlin, inaugurated in 2016. Martin Dibobe worked his way up in Germany from conductor to train driver. Nevertheless, he did not feel respected, and with a petition he defended himself against racism.
  • 9th commemoration march in memory of the African victims of slave trade, slavery, colonialism and racist violence The Committee for an African Memorial in Berlin (KADIB) and participants of the 9th commemoration march demand the recognition of crimes against black people and people of African origin. Berlin, 28.02.2015 Michaela Ellguth © picture alliance/Geisler-Fotopress
    9th commemoration march in memory of the African victims of slave trade, slavery, colonialism and racist violence The Committee for an African Memorial in Berlin (KADIB) and participants of the 9th commemoration march demand the recognition of crimes against black people and people of African origin. Berlin, 28.02.2015
  • M'barek Bouhchichi's terracotta sculptures from the installation Terre 2 in the exhibition “Ultrasanity” (Savvy Contemporary), Berlin 2019 © Amine Oulmaki
    M'barek Bouhchichi's terracotta sculptures from the installation Terre 2 in the exhibition “Ultrasanity” (Savvy Contemporary), Berlin 2019
  • In 2018, boxer Zeina Nassar fought for the introduction of changes to the competition regulations from the German Boxing Federation so that she could compete in the ring with a headscarf. In 2018 the Muslim woman became German featherweight champion. Arne Immanuel Bänsch © dpa
    In 2018, boxer Zeina Nassar fought for the introduction of changes to the competition regulations from the German Boxing Federation so that she could compete in the ring with a headscarf. In 2018 the Muslim woman became German featherweight champion.
Kübra Gümüşay describes it in her book Sprache und Sein (Language and Being) – how concepts of foreignness have manifested themselves in the way we speak about each other. Many decolonisation projects problematise these constructs too; intellectuals like Achille Mbembe examine them. But at the same time, fear of infiltration by foreigners and worrying about “rebelling minorities” seem troubling to an increasing number of people. So maybe we depend on Fremdenführer*innen more than ever these days– on people like Mbembe and Gümüsay, who are making the origins of current marginalisation reflexes visible in a hyper-accessible world with a community that’s drifting apart.

The “foreign” in the German capital

In Berlin a quick city tour through colonial history is enough to discover a present  that challenges the happily diverse image of the city. It has been noisily publicised thanks to the renovation work on the castle adjacent to Alexanderplatz for some time now: the fact that Berlin is navigating through the grey areas of a difficult past, what with the reconstruction of Prussian grandeur – and the Humboldt Forum with its controversial ethnological collection housed within.
 
The reconstructed house of Berlin tobacco merchant Wilhelm Ermeler tells a more covert story of how Berlin was also involved in a colonial power structure. It was demolished in 1967 to make room for the GDR State Council Building, and was rebuilt on Märkisches Ufer in 1969. And there is still a frieze from the 19th century hanging above the entrance of the Ermelerhaus, which depicts the tobacco production chain. On one side there are enslaved black men in the Americas, picking tobacco and bringing it to the docks. On the other a ship crosses the Atlantic, heading towards two roof cupolas on the horizon – presumably the French and German cathedrals on Gendarmenmarkt. It’s a scene that reminds us that Brandenburg-Prussia was also involved in the plantation economy and profited from the transatlantic save trade. Even though the guests who stop here today are unlikely to be particularly aware of that. They just stay in the hotel that the Ermelerhaus became years ago.
 
But maybe some people will spot it after all. That part of our history that resounds out as a colonial echo of street names or building reliefs. The part that facilitates the idea of a present day in which many people still suffer under the systematic devaluation of the imperial era. The German Federal Cultural Foundation has been thinking along those lines and plans to start a large-scale project to trace Berlin’s colonial past in 2020.
 
But it’s likely to take more than a few decent city tours to uncover the roots of persistent exclusion and discrimination. Describing a guided tour with a word like “Führung” – which after 20th century fascism is still used in association with words like Zug-, Partei- or Spiel- – might be misleading anyhow. An analysis of colonial themes ‘conducted’ (German: geführt) too rigidly is not likely to encourage people to question prejudice and entrenched views critically. But a participative, collaborative approach might succeed in picking up our complex society at its current point.

The search for the connecting element

A few weeks ago I was standing with some other visitors in the foyer of Savvy Contemporary art gallery, in Berlin-Wedding. With us was the curator of the current exhibition, Kelly Krugman. She’s one of those cultural mediators who speak a trans-cultural language without forcing it upon you. Her “Führung”  (guided tour) of the exhibition, which dazzles in a space far beyond the western canon, reveals perspectives that might seem unusual to some visitors. Krugman pauses in front of the artwork Fabricated Anthropology, which Cameroonian artist Adjani Okpu-Egbe has painted on a door leaf. Quietly, almost between the lines, she attributes the painted blood that clings to his work to an exploitative Western modernity – a frequent theme at Savvy. And she explains how the “pathologisation of the other” – the focus of her group exhibition Ultrasanity – has made that possible in the first place.
 
Krugman tells of the problematic marginalisation between “sick” and “healthy” that was perfected in many colonies, and still affects the way we treat refugees and migrants across the world. Her example of French ethno-psychiatrist Antoine Porot is just one of many. During his work in Algeria last century he came to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the country were not just mentally unstable – they all had criminal tendencies as well. You don’t need much imagination to spot today’s racist attributions in there.
 
When I leave the convoluted rooms within the gallery and emerge into daylight, the variety of artistic perspectives seem to blur into one with the street panorama for the moment. There are still a couple of translocals in the gallery’s vicinity, migrants of third or fourth generation who switch casually between affiliation codes. After that there are just social accommodation blocks. Many people live in these flats and are being made responsible for a perceived sense of foreignness in the country. People, who neither have the space nor the opportunities to oppose that. They live in a society that’s constantly on the move, yet only tolerates the unknown on their doorstep through gritted teeth.
 
I’m counting on the new Fremdenführer*innen within us all. Maybe we’ll meet each other after all.