Looking at Berlin’s present through its past

A modest exhibition in the German capital shines a light on the city’s relationship with non-European migrants – both past and present.

Migration into the Colonial Metropole Berlin, poster
TROTZ ALLEM: Migration to the Colonial Metropolis Berlin can be visited at the FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum until 30/04/2023 [FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum]

In 1994, Werner Egiomue, an elderly man with salt-and-pepper hair, sat in front of a camera in Berlin and unfurled his Afro-German family’s extraordinary history. He told the journalist interviewing him how his grandfather, M’bonga Egiomue, migrated from the then-German colony of Cameroon to Berlin in 1896, and despite initially being a colonial subject of the German Empire, became stateless after the first world war. He talked about M’bonga’s several marriages, his children, and his work in the German film industry. He went on to explain how he, himself, survived Nazi Germany as a Black man and built a life for himself and his family in Berlin after the city’s partition.

I came across the Egiomue family’s remarkable story and many others like it when I viewed the exhibition Trotz Allem: Migration to the Colonial Metropolis Berlin in the German capital’s working-class Kreuzberg neighbourhood.

The exhibition traces the lives of many African, Arab and Asian colonial subjects who migrated to Berlin in the 19th century, as well as their descendants. It shines a light on the promise and peril of being a non-European migrant in 19th and early 20th-century Germany, from the discomfort of being forced to take part in minstrelsy performances to the hopes of starting a family and a business.

The exhibition explores the lives of non-European migrants who came to Germany under distinct circumstances and faced vastly different challenges.

There are many stories of migrants from Germany’s African colonies like M’bonga, who were exhibited in so-called “Human Zoos” and forced to perform degrading routines for the entertainment of the German public. There are also the stories of Chinese scholars, such as Xue Shen, who came to Berlin to teach “Oriental languages”. There is even the story of Mahmoud Osman, a Tunisian soldier in the French military who defected and joined the German forces in World War I and eventually settled permanently in Germany.

At first glance, the exhibition appears to be one on history. But a deeper engagement with what it has to offer makes one realise it is actually a critical addition to the ongoing conversation on migration, and especially non-European migration, in Germany.

First, while the migration experiences described in the exhibition are in many ways unique to their time, it is hard not to see some remarkable parallels between them and the migration experiences of non-Europeans in modern Germany.

The exhibition shows that 19th-century migrants to Germany, whether they were forced to leave their homelands or chosen to do so for whatever reason, all had very similar dreams and desires to modern migrants: receiving an education, securing appropriate housing and work, finding someone to love and start a family with … in short being safe, happy and accepted.

Although the data on these migrants are scant, the evidence presented in the exhibition suggests they faced similar obstacles as non-European migrants of today as they tried to build their lives in 19th-century Berlin. Racism, both overt and covert, was perhaps the primary challenge holding them back. Formally educated migrants from African colonies, for example, could only secure low-status jobs such as door person, driver or performer due to their skin colour and migrant background.

Even if we ignore these parallels, Trotz Allem adds to Germany’s continuing conversation on migration simply by demonstrating that non-European migrants have been not only present in this country but an inherent part of its fabric for more than a century.

Indeed, alongside testimonies of Afro-Germans like Egiomue we see photographs and other documents that attest to the ineffable fact that Black people lived and breathed in all their complexity in Germany well before the present moment.

And these migrants did not only exist as individuals, they also created a community for themselves in their new home, inspired by Pan-Africanist struggles that were to come to fruition.

For example, several of them came together to establish the Afrikanischer Hilfsverein (African Aid Association) in 1918, the first all-German association to represent the interests of Black people in Germany. Politically diverse in their approach – with socialists in their bunch – they were united on multiple fronts to oppose racist attacks and assist African migrants living in Germany. Such community-building efforts were not merely organisational, either. The Cameroonian diaspora, for example, published Elolombe ya Kamerun, a bilingual magazine in both Duala and German, which covered the political activities of Africans living in Germany.

That migrant histories go much further back than often imagined in Germany is important to acknowledge because in the country there is currently a push for children or grandchildren of migrants to be accepted as German – if they are ever to be accepted into the national self – without excessive acknowledgement of or inquiry into their family background.

But knowing this history is necessary – not only for the descendants of migrants but all Germans – to grasp Germany’s ongoing relationship with non-Europeans who live there and, in many ways, help construct the meaning of being German.

We procured these stories because the Berlin Postcolonial Association and a collection of other concerned organisations including the Initiative of Black People in Germany and Each One Teach One, petitioned the city of Berlin government and the federal government to take action to reveal this history. And Afro-German scholars like Katharina Oguntoye and Natasha A Kelly deeply reflected on what it means to be both Black and German. What Trotz Allem and the decades of research and activism it is built upon unearthed are not merely relics of the past, but a way to hoist oneself through history and discern how Germany contends with migration in the present.

In 2015, at the height of Syria’s civil war, non-European migration to Germany experienced a new peak with more than a million people from the Middle East and beyond seeking asylum in Germany. While many welcomed these migrants with open arms and the German government assumed a much more hospitable stance than its European peers, there was also a nativist backlash and many raised questions about whether these migrants would ever truly “fit in” to German society. This year, due to the Ukraine war, Germany experienced another massive migration wave. And once again, migration is a leading discussion topic in the German public sphere.

All this makes an exhibition like Trotz Allem even more timely and salient.

When a network of organisations and researchers dug through the fragments of past migrants’ histories, they unearthed not only the personal tales of these men, women and children, but also the story of Germany’s historical treatment of Africans and other non-Europeans. Furthermore, they showed how even when the state denied them sanctuary, and society refused to accept them into the fold, migrants managed to circumvent all obstacles and make Germany their home.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.