The name of a small village in Germany is causing increasing concern. Some say it’s time to rename the area.
The seemingly idyllic village, verdant valley and nearby gushing river all carry the racially offensive name Neger (N-word in German).
Calls grew especially louder after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by a white police officer in the United States last year, bringing a new impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The conversation taking place about the village is part of a larger reckoning worldwide as people consider the racist nature of the names of certain places and things, and call for them to be updated.
“The N-word is extremely derogatory. It’s one of the most upsetting discriminatory words in the German language, ” says linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch.
He says the village’s 400 locals can’t be blamed for where they live, but they should consider how hurtful the place name is and how it affects others.
Local Mayor Peter Weber says people frequently ask about the place name. He does not see a reason to change it, saying what counts is people’s attitude to racism, and that they reject xenophobia.
But Weber’s village isn’t the only one with a name that should be questioned, says Stefanowitsch. Examples abound across Germany, such as Mohrkirch and Negernboe-tel, small villages that are little known.
One reason for the reluctance to rename places is that in Germany, people tend to think of them as resembling proper names and see them as a private matter, Stefano-witsch explains. He urges people in Germany not to immediately oppose any debate about a place name: “Place names aren’t sacred when a society and its values change.”
Researcher Markus Denkler, from a regional association in the north-west, says the word comes from the stem “Nag-” whose origins are unclear.
However, Tahir Della of the Initiative of Black People in Ger-many (ISD) says that no matter the origin, it makes sense for the village to still consider that some might find the name discriminatory.
He says people in his group were horrified after seeing the name of the village as they drove through it. Della says he doesn’t want residents to feel defensive but to “relate to the N-word”.
Stefanowitsch, for his part, suggests reverting the village’s name to its roots, to “Nager” and “Nagertal”.Named after former coloniesA similar debate is under way on the northern coast, where farms are named Kalkfontein, Karasland and Elisabethbay, after train stations in Namibia, a former German colony. They were built by Soenke Nissen, a railway engineer born here in 1870. Now, some are looking at the role Nissen played in Germany’s African colonies – and questioning whether his name is suitable for the values of today’s society.
Nissen worked in German South West Africa, a colony from 1884 to 1915, and the site of a campaign of racial extermination between 1904 and 1908. Generals drove Herero and Nama people into the desert and let them die of dehydration and starvation.
Between 24,000 and 110,000 people died during what the United Nations has called the 20th century’s first genocide.
Nissen was likely part of this, according to historian Marco Petersen, who has written about the region’s colonial past.
The labourers who built the railroad were prisoners of war whom Nissen’s company sent to a camp, Petersen says. “The conditions were inhumane, people died like flies, ” he adds.
Johannes Volquardsen, who was mayor for 10 years up until 2013, sees it differently: “You have to see it in the context of the times.”
“Nissen didn’t create the system, he let the workers work. He probably didn’t have much other choice, ” adds the 80-year-old.
He argues that Nissen, who also had a hospital built, treated the workers well, otherwise they couldn’t have finished the project so fast.
Petersen disagrees, showing how Nissen demonstrably profited from the system and grew wealthier, thanks to diamonds found during railway construction.
Volquardsen concedes that they were victims, but says working conditions were bad in Germany then too, for example for labourers building the Kiel canal that links the North Sea and the Baltic.
Culture of remembrance
Of the 2,014 Herero and Nama forced labourers, between January 1906 and June 1907 – a year and a half – 1,359 died, says Petersen. They died of illnesses due to the exhausting work, inadequate food and the climate, as the Herero and Nama were from a warmer area inland.
But questioning a local hero is divisive, Petersen says.
He is also calling for an honest discussion of the genocide, involving representatives of the Herero, Nama and Ovambo, who worked in Nissen’s diamond mines.
What’s needed is a debate about the culture of remembrance, Petersen says, calling for a process of what he describes as “re-remembering”. – dpa/Wolfgang Schmidt and Yuriko Wahl-Immel