Germany’s Racist Past

“Rocco and His Brothers” is a Berlin street art crew whose members describe themselves as “art activists”.

… For this initiative, they targeted street names in Berlin which nod to Germany’s colonial history, like Lüderitzstraße, named after a German colony in Namibia; or Nachtigalplatz, named after explorer Gustav Nachtigal, who was instrumental in establishing Germany’s first two colonies, Togoland (today’s Togo, and parts of Ghana) and Kamerun (including Cameroon and parts of Congo and Gabon).

“People talk about these names all the time, but nothing happens,” said Rocco. In August of 2020, the government announced it would rename Berlin’s Mohrenstraße – or “Moors street” – after Ghanian philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo following Black Lives Matter protests.

However, Rocco and His Brothers were sick of the inaction, so I watched them remove the signs of five streets with colonial links and re-weld the signs onto one street pole.

… Once we got to the square, the crew sectioned off a cobblestone compass built into the ground with some portable barriers. They then erected the street pole so that most of the street names pointed south, towards Africa, while Kiautschoustraße pointed east, to China. A couple of photos later and we were back in the car, off to the next project at the Mohrenstraße metro station.

Rocco wouldn’t tell me how, but he’d got hold of a master key that opened the door to a maintenance room in the middle of the metro platform. Once inside, Rocco connected an MP3 player to some speakers and broadcasted an audio recording listing the names and crimes of prominent colonialist figures in German history, for the whole platform to hear.

“Carl Peters. Colonialist, racist. Founder of the German colony of East Africa,” went one section. “He arbitrarily imposed the death penalty on the indigenous population, tortured them, oppressed them, killed them, often for purely personal reasons. A street in Berlin bears his name. Colonialism and its crimes are glorified.”

The reactions were mixed. A few minutes in, an older woman lost her cool. “Fuck you BVG! [Berlin’s transport company] We get the message!” she shouted. “This is nuts,” said a man in a suit. “Imagine if the train was cancelled – I’d really lose it!” said another.

But lots of people looked like they were actually listening. After over an hour, a BVG worker showed up to try to access the room, but Rocco had purposefully snapped the key inside the lock. Eventually, the police were called and managed to get in. But for almost two hours, the metro station was filled with stories of Germany’s dark colonial past.”