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Berlin to change street names which honour brutal colonial past

Berlin is poised to strip the names of streets linked to atrocities committed during its occupation of Namibia and dedicate them to liberation fighters, part of a late reckoning with Germany's brutal colonial history.

Berlin to change street names which honour brutal colonial past
Photo: DPA

After more than a decade of debate, the three main parties in the Berlin Mitte district assembly voted late Wednesday to recommend new names for streets in the so-called African Quarter in the northwest of the German capital, spokeswoman Melita Ersek said.

“The final decision by the district councillor could take another month or so – the date is likely to be announced at another hearing next Thursday,” Ersek told AFP. “But it is quite common that the parties' recommendation is adopted.”

The motion to drop the names associated with bloody suppression of Namibia during Germany's 1884-1919 occupation of what was then called German South West Africa marks a long-delayed victory for local activists.

The African Quarter in the multiethnic, working-class neighbourhood of Wedding has streets and squares named for the founder of German South West Africa, Adolf Lüderitz, as well as Gustav Nachtigal, its imperial commissioner, and the founder of German East Africa in today's Tanzania, Carl Peters.

Interestingly, Namibia appears to have less of a problem with the names of German imperial figures remaining a part of its geography. A harbour town in the south west of the country is called Lüderitz. The town was named in honour of Adolf Lüderitz in 1886.

Wedding, for its part, was named for 12th century nobleman Rudolf de Weddinge.

“The African Quarter still glorifies colonialism and its crimes,” council members from the Greens, Social Democrats and Linke parties said in their joint motion.

“That conflicts with our understanding of democracy and does lasting harm to the image of the city of Berlin.”

Following a redesign based on traffic flows, the sites are now to expected to be called Maji Maji Boulevard, Anna Mungunda Boulevard, Cornelius Frederiks Street and Bell Square.

Maji Maji was a battle cry used in the freedom struggle which gave its name to the biggest African uprising against the Germans.

Anna Mungunda was the first Herero woman to take a leading role in the independence movement. Cornelius Frederiks led the Nama people's resistance fight.

And Rudolf Douala Manga Bell was a Duala king in today's Cameroon who, with his wife Emily, resisted land grabs by white colonisers.

The German occupiers of Namibia killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people in 1904-1908 massacres, which historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century.

Germany has acknowledged that atrocities occurred at the hands of its colonial authorities, but it has repeatedly refused to pay direct reparations, citing millions of euros in development aid to the Namibian government.

Although the renaming looked set for approval, the daily Tagesspiegel reported that it could still run into resistance from residents and business owners complaining about the cost of address changes.

HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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