Street Fights: White Fragility in the Debate on Colonial Legacies in the Streets of Berlin

Carl Peters, Adolf Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal were once colonial heroes of the German Empire. But as colonialism came to be recognized as an inherently unjust endeavor, a group of activists started a movement to rename the streets in Berlin honoring them, thereby sparking a fierce debate about historical and racial narratives that is symptomatic of the current state of race relations in Western societies at large.

By Elias Hartmann


The Berlin Conference of 1884/85, sometimes referred to as the Congo or West Africa Conference, established Berlin as the epicenter of the German colonial empire. Today, the country’s colonial legacy remains most visible in the names of certain streets in the German capital. The most notable examples of such names are Mohrenstraße in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, which refers to a derogatory label for people of African descent, as well as the streets in the so-called “African Quarter” in Wedding which are named after the pioneers and leaders of German colonialism.

In 2009, a collective of international organizations and individual activists marked the 125th anniversary of the Berlin Conference by organizing an awareness campaign about colonial legacies. This “anticolonial conference” brought attention to an ongoing debate about renaming the streets honoring men involved in German colonialism that was initially sparked by activists from Berlin’s African and Afro-German community. The debate has carried on locally and nationally ever since and has eventually led to the decision by the district parliament of Berlin Mitte to rename Petersallee, Lüderitzstraße and Nachtigalplatz in April of 2018. However, due to numerous official complaints by local residents, the decision has, as of April 2019, not yet taken effect.

Drawing on the concept of ‘White Fragility’ as outlined by Robin DiAngelo, this essay aims to provide an overview on the general sentiments, positions and motivations behind the arguments for and against renaming these streets in the African Quarter by analyzing articles in local newspapers published before October 2018. This debate has been the focus of two previously published works, but both of these studies have not included a structured analysis of the media coverage on this issue, which is essential in order to understand the mechanisms of any public debate.[1]

Heroes of Colonial Times

The most controversial streets in the African Quarter carry the names of Carl Peters, Adolf Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal. Carl Peters was one of the most important pioneers of German colonialism and as such responsible for several murderous attacks on native peoples, such as the Masai of East Africa.[2] Adolf Lüderitz was a German businessman involved in tobacco trade who used his fortune to fraudulently acquire lands which would later become the basis of German South West Africa.[3] Gustav Nachtigal, a German scientist and explorer, was made Imperial Commissioner in 1884 and therefore an official representative of the German colonial empire.[4] Although most of the streets in the African Quarter were named to commemorate colonial achievements in the era of the German Empire, the city of Berlin continued to dedicate streets to colonies and colonial rulers during the Weimar Republic and National Socialist rule.[5]

The Concept of White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo developed her concept of ‘White Fragility’ by analyzing the behavior of Northern American white people in inter-racial dialogues. She attributes what she calls a “lack of racial stamina”[6] to being brought up in a society that exposes white people to very little race-based stress, which can be triggered by any “interruption to what is racially familiar”[7]. DiAngelo argues that such a privileged upbringing leads them to expect constant racial comfort and reduces their tolerance to race-based stress. She describes a range of defensive strategies that white people deploy when their expected racial comfort is challenged.

While DiAngelo focuses on analyzing white behavior in North America, due to the similar social context, this hypothesis is equally applicable to white people brought up in other Western, majority-white societies. It is therefore reasonable to assume that ‘White Fragility’ and its consequences could be observed in German inter-racial debates as well.

The specific case analyzed in this essay qualifies as a debate between different racial groups because the case for replacing the names of colonial oppressors in Berlin’s public spaces has largely been made by “a heterogeneous minority group […] seek[ing] to gain recognition in the majority society”[8]. A significant part of this minority coalition is made up by activists from the city’s African and Afro-German communities[9].

In this essay, ‘White Fragility’ will therefore serve as the conceptual framework for interpreting the main arguments made against renaming the streets in the African Quarter.

Analysis – Arguments and Explanations

In order to assemble a manageable sample of texts contributing to the debate, the analysis includes all 56 articles on this topic that were available as of October 3, 2018 on the websites of the three most widespread local newspapers in Berlin, namely “Der Tagesspiegel”, “Berliner Zeitung” and “B.Z. Berlin”. While this selection of sources might seem narrow considering the general scale of the debate, the inclusion of local newspapers ranging from a tabloid (B.Z.) to more ‘serious’, quality papers is intended to ensure a well-balanced analysis. Since these newspapers are not commonly associated with any particular political bias, this dimension has not been included in the analysis.

Arguments Against Renaming the Streets in the African Quarter

In general, arguments against renaming the streets in the African Quarter dominated the overall press coverage. Most of them can be categorized as merit-based, remembrance-based, justice-based or convenience-based arguments.

Merit-based arguments usually focus on negating, relativizing or romanticizing German colonialism in general or the roles of Alfred Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal in particular. The crimes of Carl Peters are generally not disputed, which may be due to the repurposing of Petersallee to honor Hans Peters, a member of the Kreisau Circle resistance group in the Third Reich, instead of colonial pioneer Carl Peters in 1986.[10] Concerning Lüderitz and Nachtigal, B.Z. argues that both of them were colonial rulers but neither murderers nor war criminals. The newspaper thereby implicitly denies the inherent injustice of colonial rule, suggesting that acts of deadly violence are required to justify removing their names from the street signs.

While this kind of subtle relativism is far more common in the analyzed material, an in-depth analysis also reveals more overt attempts to trivialize colonial injustices in general. For example, the lack of participation rights for residents of the African Quarter in the renaming process is equated by some to the colonial era oppression of African peoples. In one such instance, Der Tagesspiegel cites columnist Alan Posener as accusing the jury appointed by the district of administering colonialism in an altered form. However, the most popular merit-based argument criticizes the initial proposal to rename one of the streets after Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (e.g. Berliner Zeitung). While she is widely associated with the African struggle against oppression, she is also said to have participated in the slave trade with Western countries. Several newspapers use this fact to discredit the renaming process in its entirety.

Remembrance-based arguments against renaming the streets in question point to the role these streets could play in remembering the injustice of colonialism, accusing activists of trying to sanitize history by removing all signs of past injustices. According to Der Tagesspiegel, the right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) argues that keeping the names of colonial rulers while providing contextual information would be the appropriate way to handle this historical legacy.

The justice-based line of argument against the renaming efforts draws on the popular notion of ‘political correctness’ and claims that applying today’s moral standards to judge past historical periods is intellectually dishonest. For instance, the Berliner Zeitung stated that it is as easy as presumptuous to apply today’s understanding of reason to the colonial era. Similarly, the Berliner Zeitung attacks the explicit goal of finding women to replace the names of colonial rulers on the street signs as being part of a ‘gender cult’ overly concerned with ‘political correctness’.

The last prominent line of argument against renaming the streets in the African Quarter can be categorized as being convenience-based. This kind of argument points out the bureaucratic burdens and costs for the residents of a street when it is renamed. A good example for this line of argument is the B.Z.’s emphasis on the fact that 3000 residents and businesses would have to update their ID cards, business cards and letterheads if all three streets were to be renamed.

Additionally, arguments against renaming Petersallee, Lüderitzstraße and Nachtigalplatz are often accompanied by criticism of the lengthy and overcomplicated renaming process (e.g. Der Tagesspiegel) or personal attacks against the activists arguing for new street names, accusing them of ‘reverse racism’ targeted at white people (Berliner Zeitung).

Arguments for Renaming the Streets in the African Quarter

A majority of the arguments for renaming the streets in the African Quarter can be classified as merit-based, remembrance-based, signaling or reputation-based arguments.

In this context, merit-based arguments highlight the injustice of German colonialism in general as well as the crimes committed by Peters, Lüderitz and Nachtigal specifically. For example, B.Z. characterized these individuals as agents and pioneers of German colonialism, some holding particularly severe racist views. Additionally, several newspapers emphasized that the Kaiserreich’s colonial endeavors functioned as an ideological and strategic blueprint for the crimes subsequently committed by the Nazi regime in the Third Reich (e.g. Der Tagesspiegel).

The remembrance-based arguments for renaming the streets in the African Quarter usually point to the fact that Germany’s colonial history does not occupy a prominent place in the country’s collective memory unlike, for instance, the period of the Third Reich. For example, the Berliner Zeitung quotes a local official stating that German colonial crimes in Africa are not widely known. Another popular argument in the remembrance-based category emphasizes that having a street named after you is considered an honor in Germany, implying that naming streets after colonial rulers amounts to a glorification of colonialism (Berliner Zeitung).

Assertions that can be characterized as signaling arguments often imply that through a heightened awareness of Germany’s colonial crimes, the majority of the society will be alerted to the everyday struggles of people of color rooting in racism and colonial legacies. For instance, Susan Arndt and Ilko Sascha Kowalczuk argue in Der Tagesspiegel that the ideological heritage of colonial times still feeds into today’s racist narratives. Furthermore, proponents of the renaming efforts assert that by honoring anticolonial activists instead of their oppressors, the city would increase the visibility of role models of color and thereby combat racist narratives (Berliner Zeitung argued in the case of Mohrenstraße).

The last prominent line of argument supporting the replacement of the names of colonial figures in Berlin’s public spaces can be categorized as reputation-based. These arguments point to damages to the city’s international reputation due to the glorification of colonial injustice. According to B.Z., this argument has been included in the official renaming proposal considered by the district parliament.

Additionally, some of the activists have argued that white people are not able to objectively evaluate colonial crimes due to their racial biases (Berliner Zeitung) and therefore criticized the fact that a majority-black jury had been replaced by a group of mostly white historical experts as the body responsible for suggesting new names for the streets in the African Quarter (Der Tagesspiegel).

The Role of White Fragility

The typical indicators of ‘White Fragility’ as outlined by DiAngelo can be observed in many of the arguments against renaming the streets in the African Quarter. Especially the arguments that are classified as merit-based can be seen as “argumentation”[11] because they deny or relativize the inherent injustice of colonialism and thereby seek to undermine the foundation of the entire debate on this topic. Another common defensive strategy deployed by opponents of the renaming efforts mirrors what DiAngelo calls “the discourse of self-defense”[12]. Equating the inconveniences for residents of the African Quarter with the suffering of colonized peoples, as observed in both the merit-based and the convenience-based category, serves to insinuate that white people are being victimized by the activists. The same logic applies to claims of reverse racism.

Another defensive strategy listed as characteristic of being rooted in ‘White Fragility’ is “[…] deflecting any recognition of culpability or need of accountability”[13]. This strategy can most definitely be observed in the justice-based category, especially when the notions of ‘political correctness’ or a ‘gender cult’ are invoked. These constructs are being used to morally defend the status quo and therefore create a pretense for refusing to take part in any further debate on this issue.

These findings can be explained by comparing the arguments for replacing colonial figures in Berlin’s public spaces to the list of potential triggers of defensive behavior provided by Robin DiAngelo. For instance, the remembrance-based assertion that colonial injustices are not adequately featured in the collective memory of the majority white German society can be perceived as a “challenge to white authority”.[14]

Furthermore, the arguments classified as serving a signaling function assume that racism is still a prevalent characteristic of German everyday life. This notion represents a “challenge to meritocracy”[15] by pointing out that race is a determining factor in the distribution of resources, societal power and general prestige. Lastly, the argument that racial biases prevent white people from objectively evaluating colonial crimes clearly fits DiAngelo’s description of a “challenge to objectivity”.[16]


The concept of ‘White Fragility’ can be used to explain many of the arguments made in the debate about renaming the streets in Berlin’s African Quarter. The calls for replacing colonial figures in the city’s public spaces, largely voiced by activists of color, represent a challenge to the racial consensus of the majority-white German society. They question common historical narratives about colonialism and colonial legacies as well as the white perception of the realities of racial minorities in modern-day Germany. This predictably triggers a number of defensive strategies ranging from argumentation to deflection and self-victimization which are aimed at restoring white racial comfort. Arguably, these findings mirror similar backlashes against movements for racial justice by the majority societies of many other Western countries. The streets of Berlin have, like confederate statues in the US or imperial monuments in Britain, become important battlegrounds for the intensifying conflicts about historical and racial narratives that profoundly shape the current state of Western culture and politics.

Elias Hartmann is studying for an MA in European Studies at Maastricht University and writing a thesis on the European Union’s global fight against the death penalty. He holds a B.Sc. degree in Economics from Humboldt University Berlin.

This article is a revised version of a paper produced for the course Post-war Europe: Political and Societal Transformations within the MA in European Studies at Maastricht University.

Cover image credit: Wikimedia, Lüderitzstraße Berlin, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Suggested reference

Elias Hartmann: Street Fights: White Fragility in the Debate on Colonial Legacies in the Streets of Berlin. In: RUB Europadialog, 2019. URL: (25.06.2019).


[1] Förster, S., Frank, S., Krajewsky, G., & Schwerer, J. (2016). Negotiating German colonial heritage in Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(7), 515–529 and Bönkost, J. (2017). Straßenumbenennung als weißer Stressfaktor und die Notwendigkeit über Rassismus zu lernen.  Institut Für Diskriminierungsfreie Bildung. Retrieved from

[2] Baranowski, S. (2011). Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; p. 32

[3] Francois, C. von. (2011). Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika: Geschichte der Kolonisation bis zum Ausbruch des Krieges mit Witbooi. Norderstedt: BoD – Books on Demand; pp. 15–17

[4] Förster, S., Frank, S., Krajewsky, G., & Schwerer, J. (2016). Negotiating German colonial heritage in Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(7), 515–529.

[5] ibid.

[6] DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70; p. 56

[7] DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70; p. 57

[8] Förster, S., Frank, S., Krajewsky, G., & Schwerer, J. (2016). Negotiating German colonial heritage in Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(7), 515–529; p. 516

[9] Buche, M. (2010). Postkolonialer Aktivismus und die Erinnerung an den deutschen Kolonialismus. Phase 2 – Zeitschrift Gegen Die Realität 37. Retrieved from

[10] Förster, S., Frank, S., Krajewsky, G., & Schwerer, J. (2016). Negotiating German colonial heritage in Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(7), 515–529.

[11] DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70; p. 54

[12] DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70; p. 64

[13] ibid.

[14] DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70; p. 57

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid

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