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Revisiting the curse of Berlin


As the world commemorates 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall this month that ended the Cold War, the implications for Africa of this event, as well as an infamous conference in the German capital 135 years ago – captured in my 2010 book The Curse of Berlin: Africa After The Cold War – have largely gone unnoticed.

In November 1884, German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, opened the Berlin Conference in his snow-filled capital at which 14 largely European states set the rules for the partition of Africa. Bismarck was the Sorcerer who used his geo-strategic magic wand to cast a spell on Africa, employing the wizardry of the Industrial Revolution. The “Iron Chancellor” united Germany, and divided Africa. Within 25 years, almost all of the continent was under European colonial rule. The effects of this conference on Africa were devastating: imported political systems; fragmented and weak economies; artificial, insecure borders; and 16 land-locked countries.

As 17 African states gained their independence in the annus mirabilis of 1960, Africa’s ancestors cast their own spell on Europe a year later with the construction of the Berlin Wall symbolising the division of Germany and Europe. The fall of the wall in 1989 lifted this curse of Africa’s ancestors on Europe. However, the earlier Bismarckian curse remained, as Africa continued to suffer the effects of unconsolidated states; poorly integrated, largely mono-crop economies; and fragile borders that resulted in conflicts between states such as Ethiopia and Somalia, Libya and Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon, and Eritrea and Ethiopia. Where Africa had feared external intervention during the Cold War, marginalization was now the greater concern, as aid and investment flowed to rebuild Central and Eastern Europe. The continent was abandoned to improvise its own fragile Pax Africana following devastating conflicts in Somalia, Liberia, Angola, and Rwanda, often fuelled by former Cold War proxies.


My own personal association with Berlin – one of my favourite cities – began during a year spent at the Friedrich Schiller university in the East German city of Jena two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Studying with students from South Africa, Lesotho, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Britain, the university town had its own cosmopolitan vibe. I enjoyed visits to the nearby historic city of Weimar, and representing the university in high jump competitions in Leipzig and Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz).

My fondest memory was watching a superb performance by the indomitable Gisela May of German playwright, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, in his baroque East Berlin theatre the Berliner Ensemble am Schiffbauerdamm. An equally breath-taking portrayal of the character, Azdak, was produced by Ekkehard Schall in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. More recently, I visited Brecht’s home in Berlin which is now a museum replete with an exhibition room, photos, and biographies. Next to the house, Brecht and his actress wife, Helene Weigel, lay buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, also bearing the remains of Friedrich Hegel.

Brecht’s memory was recently kept alive through the 2018 Mack The Knife: Brecht’s Threepenny Film. Based on the playwright’s The Threepenny Opera – adapted from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – the movie is a “film within a film,” in which Brecht resists attempts by the commercial film industry to censor his biting socialist critique of capitalist society in a movie version of The Threepenny Opera. Nigerian Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, later adapted Brecht’s play in his own Opera Wonyosi.

Recent sojourns in Berlin saw visits to two museums on life in the former East Germany. While one museum presented a balanced picture of the former Communist republic, the other portrayed a largely negative image of a repressive police state where life was gray and uniform. Despite Germany’s 14-year Chancellor, Angela Merkel, being a citizen of East Germany, many of its inhabitants feel that the Wiedervereinigung (reunification) in 1990 was more of a take-over by the West than a willing integration. This has resulted in the success of the far-right Alternative for Germany party which won 23% of seats in October state elections in Thuringia.

Despite the German government having transferred an estimated $2.2 trillion to the East since 1990, and in spite of former East German cities like Leipzig, Dresden, and Potsdam enjoying economic booms, unemployment in the East is 6.1% compared to 4.6% in the West, while wages in the East are 85% of Western ones. Only 7% of Germany’s 500 most valued companies are headquartered in the East.

So, moving from Europe back to Africa, what should we do to reverse the lingering Bismarckian curse? Africans must now organise a new Berlin Conference in Addis Ababa – the seat of African diplomacy – in order to reverse the scandalous act of cartographic perfidy inflicted on the continent by European statesmen in Berlin 135 years ago. This new conference on African soil should negotiate viable political federations, more practical colonial boundaries, and new trade blocs to promote effective regional integration and development, and prevent future conflicts. The continent’s ancestors must be invited to this grand diplomatic banquet, so that the Curse of Berlin over Africa can finally be lifted.Prof. Adebajo is director, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.


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