The Foundation Prussian Palaces and Gardens is a powerful institution in Germany. It manages and renovates castles and parks in Berlin, Potsdam and the countryside surrounding the German capital. In its galleries and collections, several paintings from the 18th century hint at the presence of African servants at Prussian and German courts at the time. The Tabakskollegium – Friedrich I by Paul Leygebe, for instance, shows three of them working as servants, lighting up tobacco pipes for aristocrats in the Berlin Palace. These visible figures compel us to ask: how did those Africans came to Berlin and Potsdam?
They compel us to remember how they were shipped from today’s Ghana, how some of their fellow Africans were in turn sent to plantations in the Caribbean. Today, our responsibility vis-à-vis those paintings is to search for further traces of this history of enslavement and forced displacement in the urban landscape. Where can the broader public learn about the involvement of Brandenburg and Prussia in the trade of enslaved Africans? This history is largely unknown in the German collective psyche and we, Postcolonial Potsdam, have been leading guided tours and organising actions to make this history visible. But statues of former Prussian kings still stand without context in German cities and a deeper public debate on the relevance of those statues today is still found lacking.
Three of our members, Francis Osei, Leonie Lange and Yann LeGall, claimed the space in front of the famous Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin in December 2020. There, the statue of Friedrich Wilhelm, the so-called “Great Elector”, stands majestically in front of the entrance. It celebrates one of the main architects of Brandenburg-Prussia’s colonial history, but most passers-by are unaware of his involvement in the trade of enslaved Africans. The #BlackLivesMatter movement and the sensational toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in June 2020 have shown that there is still a need to address ethics of remembrance of this terrible past in Europe, despite the important work done by BPoC and critical whiteness activists and scholars done in the last decades.
Our action there (and the video that documents it) wish to foreground the horrible deeds of the Brandenburg Africa Company, but also to suggest ways of remembering victims of racial violence in an inclusive and positive way, looking ahead towards a common future built on an informed and critical view of European colonial history. Berlin – and Germany in general for that matter – is fraught with important historical sites: the Stolpersteine; memorials for Jewish, Sinti & Roma, homosexual and political victims of the Nazi regime; remnants of the Berlin Wall with the names of people who were murdered by soldiers when attempting to flee East Germany… There is space for more histories.
There is always space for more remembrance, since memory is “unbound” (Levy, 2002). Despite the absence of names of Africans who were enslaved, shipped and exploited by the BAC, there are still ways to go against the enduring violence perpetuated by those statues of Friedrich Wilhelm and his son Friedrich I. This means either keep the “monsters” around us but make their deeds visible with an information plaque or some other counterpart, like activist Karfa Sira Diallo has advocated in his guided tours in Bordeaux (France). Or, it means toppling those statues and having the courage to propose a change in perspective, for instance through contemporary art, or with grassroots ways of occupying the space, like the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has done in Australia. It also means informing the broader public and developing archives that offer evidence of this racial violence, like the Black Archives in Amsterdam.
In Potsdam, we are confronted with another problem. In the main tourist attraction, the famous Sanssouci Park, four busts of black marble picture four nameless Africans looking up to two white male Roman emperors. The name of this square even used to include the M***-word, a German term that has been used in poetry, literature, film and songs to denigrate Black people since the 18th century. The rotary has been renamed in September 2020 after five years of pressure from civil society, but the statues are still there (trigger-warning: if you click here you will be redirected to photos of these busts). Our colleagues from #BlackLivesMatterBerlin and the Black Diaspora University Group in Potsdam have told us how they consider those statues. Here are some snippets of their viewpoints:
Angelo Camufingo: The Sanssouci Park, and by extension the M***-word rotary, were integrate part of my life as a pupil. I went to school in Potsdam and almost every excursion day took place in some part of the park. I know for sure that I always found the rotary unpleasant. I also knew early on that my white classmates didn’t feel that way. At that time, I couldn’t explain why I felt and knew this, but I considered the roundabout as racist even back then, and not only because of its name.
When we as a class or group stood in front of it or passed it, I felt that it was strangely addressed to myself or my family, even in an offensive manner. I don’t know if I can still relate to that feeling but I just knew that the people who were depicted there were not looked at or depicted with the same freedom or value as other characters in the park. I knew it wasn’t about the beauty, strength and aesthetics of Black people. From my perspective, the rotary and the busts embody enslavement, racism, colonialism, and the complete degradation of people whose exploitation has been responsible for the wealth and power of the West and a white majority society.
Farai von Penz: #BLM forces us to ask: “what should we do with those statues that are part of the landscape we live in, but which actually carry a violent history with them?” They should not stand somewhere without being contextualised, because they carry so much meaning in public memory.
As far as the M***-word rotary is concerned, it is a bit different from Edward Colston. Here, we have Black people who were portrayed from the point of view of a white European artist. It corresponds to his vision of Black people. So we have this “gaze” of a white man cast upon a “noble savage,” and as long as the rotary stands, this gaze is being reproduced time and again.
Sonja Vurande: This representation in the Sanssouci Park should not act as decoration or ornamentation for visitors and tourists. It should not remain part of a landscape because here, the history of the Brandenburg slave trade and the crimes that were committed in this context are downplayed or even legitimized. It is painful for me as a Black person and I can imagine that it is the same for many other Black people.
I would be happy to see it simply disappear. As long as these Black busts continue to be represented as servants, narratives of Black people’s submissiveness are perpetuated. In my opinion these busts belong in a museum. There they should be critically contextualized. This representation is no longer appropriate to the times. It’s very distasteful and painful to me.
Another colleague of ours, Kenyan researcher Oduor Obura, had another creative suggestion:
Oduor Obura: What I find rather striking and interesting was the tilted gaze. To me, the gaze inspired some feeling of servitude. The busts should have been made to have a straight gaze, like almost all other busts in the park. Metaphorically speaking, there is a need to re-tilt the gaze, so that the tourists who come to the park see a direct gaze instead of having this sort of subservient gaze that the busts evoke.
I would suggest that we take away the current four busts. Then we could commission an artist from, say, Tanzania (because the Germans occupied East Africa) or West Africa, where most of the slaves were obtained from. Let this artist do new busts with fresh history to commemorate the occupation of East Africa or the history of the Slave Trade along the West African coast … and install her/his work in lieu of the rotary.
Through actions, guided tours, but also radical change in architecture and urban art, such spaces could finally be more inclusive if only the perspective of BPoCs were acknowledged. But let us also demand that, if anything is changed, a trace of this shift in perspective be kept, to show that decolonisation is not an act, but a process that compels a continuous debate on the persistence of racism in society and in the minds.
Only then will the souls of victims of racial violence, of anti-colonial figures, and those of their descendants be able to rest in peace.
 Tabakskollegium on wikipedia
 For a virtual tour through those traces in Potsdam, see our audio-guide-app HERE
 See for instance Mbembe, A. (2017); Chantiluke, R., Kwoba, B., & Nkopo, A. (2018); Bisoka, A. N. (2020).
 See Karfa Sira Diallo’s interview of Caribbean Writer Patrick Chamoiseau (2019)
Bisoka, A. N., Les afro-descendants belges et la question de la reconnaissance in «The Conversation» 2020.
Chantiluke, R., Kwoba, B., & Nkopo, A., Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonize the Heart of Empire, ZED, London, 2018.
Diallo, K. S., Pour une Maison Contre les Esclavages… in «Mediapart» 2019.
Levy, D., & Sznaider, N., Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory, in «European Journal of Social Theory» 5(1), S. 87-106. 2002.
Mbembe, A., Critique of Black Reason (L. Dubois, Trans.), Duke University Press, London & Durham, 2017.
Postcolonial Potsdam is an interest group that engages with the colonial history of Prussia and calls for an honest debate about colonialism and its legacy in Potsdam and Brandenburg. Founded in 2015 by Elisabeth Nechutnys, Anna von Rath, Lina Fricke and Paula Seemann, it counts now about a dozen of members. They offer critical guided tours through the famous Sanssouci park. In 2020, they developed an interactive map and a digital audio-guide.