Renaming Mohrenstraße: More respect for the history of people of African origin in Berlin

Open letter of the alliance Decolonize Berlin! to the editorial office of the Berliner Zeitung

Dear Sir or Madam,

on 8/26/16 your newspaper published the article “Renaming Mohrenstraße: No Respect for Berlin’s History” by Maritta Takle, Department Head for Politics and Local History. In this text, the more than 200 predominantly black and African participants of the 3rd renaming festival for Berlin’s “Mohrenstraße” on the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (Aug. 23) are dubbed as undemocratic “iconoclasts of modern times.” The author claims that their request to change the street name with the discriminatory foreign designation for Black and African people is one of the “requests often taken to the abstruse” by “tiny minorities.”

Not enough with that, Ms. Tkalec compares the peacefully celebrating people, among them numerous families with children, with “Muslim rioters” and the terrorists of the IS, who “invoking political correctness and emphasizing their status as discriminated and offended, words, symbols, works of art”, want to “erase” and “exterminate” the “testimonies of older – foreign – cultures”. She accuses those involved in commemorative politics of “disrespecting 300 years of the city’s history” and of spreading “nonsense that distorts history”.

As the initiating associations and organizations of the commemorative and educational event, which was sponsored by the German government and the Berlin Senate, among others, and which took place with the participation of members of the Bundestag as part of the UN Decade for People of African Descent, we strongly protest against this unbelievable defamation of the participants. We expect a public apology from Ms. Tkalec for her irresponsible verbal lapses, which are unworthy of a professional journalist. In addition, we request that your newspaper print this Open Letter, in which we counter the numerous false statements made by your author.

In 1706, when the street name we criticize was given, the Prussian King Frederick I was the official ruler of the trading colony “Groß Friedrichsburg” (today Princes Town, Ghana) and its African inhabitants, which was established in 1683 by order of the “Great” Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg. Confronted with the gunboats of the Brandenburg fleet and the attacks by their neighbors supported by the Dutch, their princes had placed themselves under the “protection” of the Hohenzollerns. In 1684, one of their representatives had even traveled to Berlin to officially submit to the Elector.

It is unlikely and nowhere documented that the street name, given only two decades after this trip, referred to the population of Groß Friedrichsburg, which at that time was under Prussian rule only on paper. What is proven, however, is what is still concealed in Berlin’s school textbooks today: that the Brandenburg electors used the colonial fortress until the end of the 17th century to participate in one of the greatest crimes in human history. In the process, nearly 20,000 African children, women and men were forcibly shipped from them within a few years and sold into American plantation slavery.

It is also proven that Elector Frederick William already commissioned his first ships sent to Africa in the early 1680s to carry off underage Africans to Brandenburg, in addition to exotic animals. Baptized and given new Christian names, these were to be made representative “Court and Chamber Moors.” They had to serve above all the extensive electoral-royal family, whose palaces were built in the Friedrich- and Dorotheenstadt, which were developed in this time. In exceptional cases, it was even possible for them to start families here in Berlin. In the famous painting “Tobacco College of Frederick I in Prussia” by Leygebe from 1709/10, which can be seen today in Charlottenburg Palace and was created shortly after the naming of M*strasse, three of these first Black Berliners can be seen.

Since unfree people from Africa and their children born in Berlin were already part of everyday life in the residential city at the time the street was named around 1700, it can be assumed with great certainty that the street was named after them. But even if the street name should have referred to the population of Groß Friedrichsburg, it by no means “honored” free African “partners”. Rather, it glorified Prussia’s rule over “its colonial subjects” in Africa.

Given the historical context outlined here, it should also become clear to Ms. Takle why we, unlike her, cannot find “joy in the street name.” For us, the oldest German foreign designation for people of African origin is associated with the memory of their centuries-long subjugation, discrimination and systematic enslavement by white Europeans. Most white Germans also associate the term with a pejorative image of humanity, as reflected not least in the colonial racist stereotype of the childlike, service-minded Sarotti-M. has been knocked down.

Together with Amnesty International, we will therefore continue our protest against the degrading street name until it has been replaced by the name of a black or African personality who stood up against colonialism and racism. Information boards in public spaces or in the subway station – we have been calling for this for a long time – should then explain in detail the old street name, its historical context, the reasons for its change and the new name.

We are counting not only on Pirates, DIE LINKE and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen for this project, but also on the Berlin SPD. The latter has already spoken out at its last state party conference in favor of renaming the street, which is indeed incompatible with our “current understanding of democracy”. It is time for Berlin to deal self-critically with its colonial history and to set clear signs in public space against the racism of yesterday and today.

Berlin’s journalists should also be aware of their great responsibility towards the protection of minorities, who have to fight for the preservation of their basic democratic rights until today. This undoubtedly includes the right to a voice in remembrance policy and public criticism of street names, especially if they designate people of African origin. Those who, in connection with a local street renaming, create cultural threat scenarios through ludicrous comparisons, encourage militant racists in their readiness for physical and symbolic violence. Two of them were arrested at the edge of our sunny festival, after they had welcomed the small and big visitors with the Hitler salute.

Berlin, 30.08.2016

The initiators of the 3rd festival to rename Berlin’s M* Street:

AfricAvenir International

Africa Council, umbrella organization of African associations and initiatives Berlin-Brandenburg

Berliner Entwicklungspolitischer Ratschlag – Berlin Development Policy Council – Landesnetzwerk entwicklungspolitischer

Clubs in Berlin (BER)

Berlin Postcolonial

Initiative Black People in Germany (ISD)

Anti-racism thematic group Amnesty International

Central Council of the African Community in Germany


Tahir Della, 015254217327, ,

Christian Kopp, 01799 100 976,