Notions of a Historically Determined City Identity and an Exclusive Politics of Memory in the ‘Naval City’ Wilhelmshaven (GER)

The northern German city of Wilhelmshaven was founded more than 150 years ago as a purpose-built naval base, and for decades remained a hub for Germany’s expansionist naval activities. This history is still present in the structure of the city’s urban realm, its built environment, and its continuing role as a naval base. Acknowledging this presence, parts of the city’s political establishment and civic community present the navy and its history during Germany’s imperial era as the city’s historical essence and inescapable identity, which the city cannot deny, but can only accept. This is expressed in historical-political debates, practices of remembrance, and symbolic marking of urban space: bronze statues of Wilhelm I and Bismarck were newly erected, a Kaiser-Wilhelm emoji with a spiked helmet served as the logo for the city’s 150th anniversary, the waterfront promenade is still named after a Nazi admiral and the colonial war memorial remains without a critical information sign. The tourist agency markets the city through the (virtual) ‘splendour’ of the imperial navy, and the residues of colonialism are recast as a tradition of cosmopolitanism. Behind this suggested inevitability of a military-masculine interpretation of the city lies a selective politics of remembrance that ignores the historical role of the labour movement, of women and migrant workers, and levels the city’s historical burdens through a fatalistic understanding of identity. Postcolonial perspectives that would disrupt the narrative of the ‘splendour’ of the navy by taking into account the colonial violence it perpetrated are thus impossible. This construction of urban identity also excludes large parts of the urban population, especially migrant communities, stabilizes the discursive dominance of the established, navy-oriented city politics and its proponents, and thus contributes to the segregation of the socio-cultural urban space and unequal representation. Wilhelmshaven is therefore not only an example of the memory-political challenges posed by the imperial era, militarism, and colonialism but also of the historical-political effects of supposedly determined and inevitable urban identities. In this contribution, I will analyse this example drawing on approaches from sociology as well as history, and argue for the importance of an analytical concept of identity (constructions) for the study and critique of local(ised) memory politics and their social implications.