Friedberg is an inconspicuous town with roughly 30,000 inhabitants in a rural district in the middle of Germany. It lies at the hinge of the metropolitan region of Frankfurt/Rhein-Main, where the European Central Bank is headquartered. In recent years, this town where urban and rural life collides has occasionally popped up in the national headlines, all because of a small pharmacy.
In July, for the second time now, a group of around a hundred protesters had gathered on the square right in front of the pharmacy to demonstrate “Against Racism and Colonial Language.” They had followed a call by the United Colors Of Change initiative to voice their disapproval at the name, Hof-Apotheke Zum Mohren — Court Pharmacy at the Moor’s.
Remembering Germany’s Dark Colonial History
This particular pharmacy is representative of more than a hundred with the word “Mohren” in their name across the country. They are at the center of the heated and unrelenting debate around systemic and structural racism, and the question of how to deal with Germany’s colonial past. It isn’t just pharmacies that bear this particular designation; it also appears in names of streets, restaurants, food and drinks.
The German word “Mohr” derives both from the Greek “Moros,” meaning foolish but also stupid, and from the Latin term “Maurus,” meaning black and dark, which the Romans used to describe the inhabitants of the empire’s province of Mauritania.
For critics like the protesters in Friedberg, the use of this term not only represents the use of language with colonialist connotations; they regard it as an expression of underlying, structural racism that legitimizes and perpetuates historically established balances of power and inequalities in the present.
Calling for a change of name, their purpose is to overturn racist inequalities inherent in the German language. Yet first and foremost, they plead for an awareness that recognizes the power of language in the first place because “language creates reality and serves to establish and maintain social relations and systems and is the most important medium in people’s interactions with one another.”
In this dispute over etymological sovereignty of interpretation, numerous renowned experts jumped to the protesters’ defense. According to Susan Arndt, professor of English and Anglophone literature at Bayreuth University, the racist provenance of the M-word resembles the N-word. Both are often used synonymously and influenced by the idea “that people can be divided by race [and] skin color or … that there are supposedly two races that have mixed.”
Anatol Stefanowitsch, professor at the Institute of English Language and Literature at the Free University Berlin, considers the term a problematic foreign designation since Africans never called themselves that way. It stems from a time “in which there was — to put it kindly — a great ignorance as far as the various tribes in Africa are concerned.”
Only a handful of the affected pharmacies in Germany reacted to the criticism by changing their names. The Hof-Apotheke Zum Mohren in Friedberg is not one of them. The owner of the pharmacy refers back to an alternative interpretation of the use of the term “Mohren” as a tribute to the Moors, who brought modern, advanced pharmacology from the Middle East to Europe.
Helmut Glück, a former professor of linguistics at Bamberg University, is one of the few linguists to undergird this positive interpretation. According to Glück, the presumptions held by other linguists and the demonstrators are “based on ignorance of the linguistic and cultural-historical background.” He warns against an alleged Jacobean terror of virtue: “Moor is an old word. It is not used today to insult black people.” Yet a denial that the word is an “expression of coloniality” and has always been used as a foreign designation is nowhere to be found.
As to the dispute over the name of the Friedberg pharmacy, positions are more entrenched than ever and neither side is ready to give in. Debate and the sentiments around this particular Apotheke can serve as a blueprint for popular opinion in the whole country. Indeed, the owner’s refusal to change the name “for traditional and emotional reasons“ has broad support among Friedberg’s citizens. More than 25,700 have signed a petition launched in 2018 to oppose the renaming. A countervailing petition advocating the renaming of the pharmacy only counts about 1,200 signatures to date.
Ignoring Colonial History
Protesters, however, consider a mere reference to tradition insufficient. Their aim is to shift the public perceptions of people and minorities affected by racism. It also is an act of solidarity with those suffering from systemic racism who shy away from exposing themselves and their experiences of racism for fear of being subjected to more abuse and prejudice.
These fears are not unfounded. The hatred that these protesters face casts a light on the smoldering xenophobia in Germany. According to Ousman Conteh, the organizer of the demonstrations, abuse and obscene gestures from passers-by are a regular occurrence.
What’s in a Name? Rebranding Racist Legacies
Comments in the anonymous space of the internet surpass real-life incidents, he told apotheke adhoc: “From hatred to incitement of the people … everything was there.” In an email, he recalls very personal, racist slurs directed at him. One of these comments that “stuck in his mind” read: “If we are talking about changing his name, maybe he should start with himself. He bears the name of an entire terrorist group — Osman.”
This was not only a strikingly offensive but also a blatantly incorrect statement that underlines the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the debate. This atmosphere was stoked and exploited by far-right politicians: “Even an AfD [Alternative for Germany] member of parliament commented that we should go back to Africa,” Conteh added.
Resistance to change the names of companies, institutions or products and recognizing structural racism is hardly unique to Germany. Nevertheless, the use of language is both a reflection of a society’s values and of how it deals with history. Indeed, in English-speaking countries, Germany is often regarded as a positive example of how to approach a difficult past, especially when it comes to the Third Reich. Nevertheless, this positive assessment of coming to terms with national socialism should be seen against the backdrop of a half-hearted denazification.
Colonial history before the Nazi era in Germany has largely been ignored. For example, 117 years had to pass before Germany officially recognized the 1904 genocide of the Herero and Nama people in what was then German South West Africa, now Namibia. Restitution of looted art is proceeding hesitantly. There is no central memorial for the victims of German colonialism.
The lack of urgency and sensitivity toward Germany’s colonial past is also aided by the fact that the German colonial era is not addressed at all, or only sparsely, in school history curricula. Alice Hasters, a 32-year-old journalist and author of the much-discussed book, “What White People Don’t Want to Hear About Racism But Should Know Anyway,” told Deutschlandfunk that during her school years, terms such as “colonial times” and “race theory” were hardly mentioned.
In her opinion, this hasn’t improved up to date: “In the meantime, I’ve been back to a few schools and I don’t have the feeling that so much has changed … The curriculum is based on a white German standard. Anything that deviates from that is ignored.”
Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs of change. Protests and public denunciations of racist names of colonial origin are just one indication of this. As it seems, they might have propelled Germany’s political parties to start addressing the country’s colonial legacy. The program of the coalition government led by Angela Merkel states: “No future without remembrance — the basic democratic consensus in Germany includes coming to terms with the Nazi reign of terror and the SED dictatorship, as well as Germany’s colonial history.“
A closer look at the election programs of Germany’s six main parties, days away from the general election on September 26, shows the increasing importance of the issue. Compared to the election programs for the 2017 general election, the word “colonialism” is mentioned more frequently, advocating a postcolonial culture of remembrance. The Social Democrats went from one mention of colonialism in 2017 to five mentions in 2021, the Greens from zero to 18, the Left party from four to 14, and the Christian Democratic Union from zero to a modest one.
While the Liberal Democrats fail to mention colonialism both in 2017 and 2021, the far-right AfD is the only party to take an opposing stance. While it did not thematize colonialism in its 2017 election program, its 2021 manifesto states: “The debate about an allegedly necessary ‘decolonization’ of our culture, which goes hand in hand with a demonization of the ‘white man,’ calls into question the self-image of our cultural identity as a whole. The AfD is the only political force opposing this dismantling of our historical-cultural identity.”
Yet there is still disagreement among those who want to achieve greater sensitivity about the path and strategy for publicly addressing systemic, structural racism. Leila Slimani, a French-Moroccan journalist and author who writes about the conflict between France and the protectorate of Morocco in her most recent novel, “The Country of Others,” urges a preoccupation with the colonial past. She argues against removing monuments and erasing traces of colonial history: “We have to preserve the traces, otherwise we won’t be able to make our children understand this later.”
Nevertheless, traces such as the “Mohren” pharmacies have always been there in Germany, and debates about structural racism and colonialism only arose due to demands for the name change. At the same time, it seems fair to question whether equating words with monuments underestimates the real power of language. Victor Klemperer, a literary scholar of Jewish origin, wrote in a 1947 treatise on the language of the Third Reich: “Words can be like tiny arsenic doses. They are swallowed unnoticed, they seem to have no effect, and yet after some time, the poisonous effect is there.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.