This recording is done on a Sunday morning in Koloniestrasse, a side road from the busier Osloer strasse. A quiet recording from a quiet road on a quiet Sunday morning, but I sense a darker reverberation.
In the late 1990s I lived in Namibia for two years. The first year me and my family stayed in a small apartment at Shark Island in Luderitz in southern Namibia. At times, I would hear rumors that something had happened there in the past, but it was difficult to get any details. Later I learned that Shark Island had been the site of the first modern concentration camp, constructed by the German empire during the Herero and Namaqua genocide of 1904–1908.
The history is detailed in the book “The Kaiser’s Holocaust” by Olusoga & Erichsen.1 The authors detail the shocking history of German colonialism and ethnic cleansing in German South West Africa, and the historical development of national histories and identities, ideas, ideologies, politics and warped scientific theories that supported colonialism and racism and eventually led to and justified these horrors. Those ideas continued to resonate and develop in the aftermath, eventually informing the thinking of The Third Reich. Even worse, the very same ideas remain depressing present to this day in thinking, politics and news coverage in Western Europe and USA.
A section in the early part of the book leads back to the place of this recording, Koloniestrasse, and the era when this part of Berlin was built.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Germany experienced a baby boom even greater than that which followed World War II. Between unification and 1914 the population more than doubled, reaching 68 million – a figure that neither France nor Britain has yet to reach. This was welcomed by the new industrialists, who saw it as a guarantee that their factories would never run short of labour, and by the militarists, who longed for an ever-larger army. Others interpreted Germany’s growing population as evidence of the essential vitality of the German race. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, it was the engine for a social disaster.
As early as the 1870s Germany’s cities were seriously over-crowded. At the time of unification, Berlin already had a higher population density than London. By the end of the 1890s, the majority of Berliners were either first or second-generation immigrants from the countryside. City planners, such as they were, failed repeatedly (and understandably) to grasp the sheer enormity of the country’s population boom. Numbers that forecasters thought would not be reached for decades were exceeded within years. Even the most forward-thinking municipalities found themselves completely incapable of housing the thousands who arrived each year from the countryside. Germany became a nation of enormous slums.
The poorest districts of Berlin were among the most overcrowded and unhealthy in Europe. Conditions in the capital were made worse by the construction of the Hinterhöfe, blocks of seven-store red-brick tenements built around central courtyards. They had been conceived as the solution to the city’s housing problems, and instead became its emblem. Whole families were crowded into single rooms, several families into apartments designed for one. Poverty and overcrowding increasingly led to the familiar nineteenth-century urban cocktail of endemic and epidemic diseases – tuberculosis, typhus, cholera and influenza.
The masses trapped in these tiny single-roomed hovels eventually became known as the Volke Ohne Raum – people without space. Their plight became a national fixation and was taken by many in nationalist circles as evidence that what Germany needed, about all, was space. The search for space, new land for the excess population, became a key feature of fin de siècle German thinking and politics.
1 David Olusoga & Casper W Erichsen (2011): The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. Faber & Faber.