Traces of the Colonial Age in Northern Germany: The Elephant in Bremen

If you do not leave Bremen’s main station in the direction of the city centre and the tram stop, but in the direction of Bürgerweide, you will come across a monument whose significance probably not every passer-by is aware of: the brick elephant.

The northern German port city of Bremen was important for German foreign trade in the 19th century and therefore also served as a port from which trade with the German colonies was conducted. One of the most important routes was to Deutsch-Südwest, today’s Namibia, which was acquired as a German colony at the end of the 19th century at the instigation of the Bremen tobacco merchant Adolf Lüderitz. At first Lüderitz founded a branch on the coast of present-day Namibia at his own risk. Later, the government of the German Reich was involved, as conflicts had arisen with locals and other colonial powers present in the region. For this reason, too, the German presence in Africa’s southwest continued after Lüderitz’s death in 1886.

As a consequence of the lost world war, the German Reich had to give up all colonial possessions in Africa, Asia and Oceania in 1918. It is generally known that the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, imposed on Germany by the Allies, met with little approval in the German Reich. This not only affected reparations, demilitarisation and cessions of territory in Europe, but also the loss of colonial property. In 21st century Germany, this is an episode of German history, often marginalized, but it was of greater importance to many people during the Weimar Republic. They had to live with the fact that Germany had lost its colonies. The desire for restitution of the German colonies also played a role in the call for the provisions of the Versailles Treaty to be repealed. This wish was expressed by the construction of monuments such as the brick elephant in Bremen. The main drivers of this movement were merchants in the northern German port cities, who felt the economic consequences of the loss.

After long discussions and plans, the colonial monument in the form of an elephant was inaugurated in February 1932. The design as elephant puts the African colonies in the foreground. Below the monument is a crypt which served as a memorial for the elephant members of the colonial protection troops who were killed in the First World War.

In the years after 1945, the monument initially remained unchanged in its intention. It was not until the second half of the 1980s that the transformation from a colonial memorial to an anti-colonial monument began. However, this makes it one of the first of its kind in Germany. One of the reasons for this early development was probably the central location of the elephant between the main station and Bürgerweide, which made it difficult to displace the colonial memorial site. As a first step, the elephant was solemnly rededicated as an anti-colonial monument in October 1987 and comprehensively restored in the following years. In May 1990, a “Namibia Freedom Festival” was celebrated on the elephant. In June 1996 Sam Nujoma, then President of Namibia, visited the elephant and inaugurated a plaque – together with Bremen’s then Senate President Henning Scherf – commemorating the victims of German colonial rule in Namibia.

In 2009, a full-fledged monument was erected to the victims of the genocide, which is characterised by its immediate proximity to the elephant. This is a circular stone laying for the stones from the Namibian Omaheke desert, the site of the genocide of Herero and Nama from 1904 to 1908, were brought to Bremen. In addition, the park in which the elephant stands was renamed Nelson Mandela Park in 2014. In keeping with the plaque set up in 1988 by the Bremen IGM Youth, which clearly speaks out against an Africa of apartheid and in favour of an Africa of human rights.

To sum up, the development of the German culture of remembrance with regard to colonialism can be seen very clearly in the park not far from the main station. First there is the erection of the elephant as a brick demand for the return of the colonies, then first the apparent suppression and from the end of the 1980s a slow and bumpy reappraisal of the crimes of the German protection troops in Namibia, which puts the old monument from the 1930s in a new light and puts it into a new context by redesignation.

For further information

To the monument:

To Adolf Lüderitz:

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