Berlin: Uncomfortable Odonyms, Suspicious Streets

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

An overlooked and mundane part of life for many, the problematising of street-names in cities has been witnessing a growing interest from anti-racist and decolonial activists in recent years. From the squares of Glasgow in Scotland to the renaming of places in post-Apartheid South Africa, street-names, or odonyms, are seen by many to have an impact on the sense of belonging and identity of citizens, shaping and perpetuating what these cities and countries most represent. However, arguments that name changes of streets, estates and buildings risks erasing the controversial histories of countries acts as a challenge to growing renaming movements. In this article, I will look to Berlin, a city with a famously contentious and troubled history from periods of Nazi, Allied Forces and Soviet rule, but also with lesser recognised connections to colonialism that still permeate the city’s urban fabric today.


With a current population of 3.7 million, Berlin has been the capital of Germany since the formation of the nation-state in 1871. From 1945 to 1989, the Berlin Wall prevented movement between the communist East, and the democratic West: the city was officially unified in 1990, with present-day Berlin being divided into twelve boroughs. Across these periods, Berlin experienced many name changes as the city’s streets and plazas became the public arena for the socio-political mood of the country. Nazi dictatorship had a significant but short-lived impact on Berlin’s street names, where a policy of "aryanyzing" (Arisierung) street names led to odonyms including Adolf-Hitler-Platz and Hermann-Goring-Strafie.


In the early post-War years, the divergence of East and West Berlin could be seen across many spheres, including street renaming policy. West Berlin began re-employing names that had been present before 1945 but without Nazi connotations, such as Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, and a variety of military figures; and East Berlin decided in 1951 to rename all streets after progressive scientists, artists, and prominent Communists. With the reunification of Berlin came another swathe of street renaming, often with contentious outcomes as East Berliners complained of being robbed of their identity as with is where the efforts were more concentrated. The use of personalised names such as poets, writers, musicians, victims of Nazism or communism, and non-personalised names such as natural objects and geographic places has acted as a solution to these tensions, yet there remains a key area in Berlin that has only recently been highlighted as a problematic area in the same way Nazi and Soviet odonyms have been viewed, bringing in questions of race and inclusiveness to this street renaming phenomenon.


In Berlin’s borough of Mitte, in a locality called Wedding, exists the Afrikanisches Viertel or African Quarter, an area where German colonialist legacies are arguably honoured in the surrounding street-names. With German colonial rule often overlooked for reasons including comparative brevity, lack of data collection on ethnicity, and the uncomfortable discussion of race across white German society, Berlin’s African Quarter is a stark reminder of how European coloniality in Africa remains part of the urban fabric despite periods of Nazi and Soviet rule being wiped from the slate. With names such as Nachtigalplatz and Petersallee commemorating German explorer Gustav Nachtigal and colonial ruler and founder of the German East Africa Company, Carl Peters, such streets arguably act as “memorials… without giving any commemoration to the victims of such powers”, Tanzanian activist Mnyaka Sururu Mboro stipulates. The overlooking of Germany’s colonial histories and legacies that remain prominent in street names across the city arguably reveal that progress towards a united city has only been directed to Berlin’s white populations, with the continued celebration of colonial figures serving to racialize a sense of belonging and identity in the city.


In present-day Berlin, there are active debates surrounding black identity and the renaming of the African Quarter. Afro-German political groups such as Initiative Schwarzer Deutscher (IDS) and Anticolonial Africa Conference aim to raise awareness of Germany’s ‘giant blind-spot’ and contribute to discussions on Black German identity. Berlin Postkolonial, founded in 2007, calls for problematic odonyms to be renamed after anti-colonial resistance fighters (BER, 2008), with successes achieved such as the renaming of Grobenufer to May-Ayim Üfer in 2010, honouring the Afro-German poetess and activist. However, resistance towards the renaming of streets has been voiced under concerns that such names must be an honest reflection of a community's entire past, whether good or bad, instead of being seen as just symbolic reflections of traditions and structures of power and control.


The ubiquity of street names means they are often overlooked, but they are metaphorical of a city’s struggles, providing statements of political consciousness that manipulate aspects of urban identity and reflecting structures of power and control based on the names, who chooses them, and for what reasons. Many argue odonyms should be honest reflections of the past, whether good or bad; however, the fact that Berlin has experienced many Nazi and Soviet name changes as a collective movement towards inclusivity brings into question who is being included, which views of the past are deemed acceptable, and why some legacies remain part of Berlin’s urban fabric.


Further reading:

  1. Azaryahu, M., 1986. Street names and political identity: the case of East Berlin. Journal of Contemporary History, 21(4), pp.581-604.

  2. Campt, T.M., 1993. Afro-German cultural identity and the politics of positionality: contests and contexts in the formation of a German ethnic identity. New German Critique, (58), pp.109-126.

  3. de Sousa, A. (2017) ‘Germany's other brutal history: should Berlin's 'African Quarter' be renamed?’ The Guardian. 4th April 2017.

  4. Steckenbiller, C., 2019. Berlin’s Colonial Legacies and New Minority Histories: The Case of the Humboldt Forum and Colonial Street Names in the German Capital. Monatshefte, 111(1), pp.99-116.