What are the politics of colonial memory in Germany?

What are the politics of colonial memory in Germany?


Germany’s relatively short-lived, but yet brutal, colonial history, and the politics of its memorialization


Herero women, Opuwo, Northern Namibia. Image credit Carsten ten Brink via Flickr.

What ideologies and interests motivated German colonialism? What were Germans’ perceptions about colonialism? How was the German colonial administration organized? How should the crimes of the German colonialism be contextualized? What are the politics of colonial memory in Germany?

In a recently published essay collection (so far only in German), historians Horst Gründer and Hermann Hiery, seek to provide a response to these questions. German colonialism remains a tremendously under-researched field, and receives even less attention in German societal discourse or within the German education system. Given German history, the importance of grappling with a difficult past (in German “Aufarbeitung”) is recognized, and there is considerable awareness about the dangers of nationalist conceptions of “past.” Yet, the failure to face Germany’s relatively short-lived, but yet brutal, colonial history, and the politics of its memorialization continue to haunt Germany in the present. Germany’s colonial empire in Africa from roughly 1884-1919 is known to include German East Africa, including Tanganyika, Burundi, Rwanda, Witu (part of present-day Kenya), as well as parts of present-day Tanzania and Mozambique; German South West Africa (Namibia, and parts of present-day Botswana); and German West Africa (Cameroon and Togo). The legacy of “German empire” can, however, be traced back earlier to Prussia.

Gründer and Hiery’s work sheds light onto the long “journey” to German colonialism. Historian Ulrich van der Hayen outlines Prussia’s initial imperial ambitions, and how they were subsequently memorialized and strategically deployed. Prussia’s then emperor Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-88) and a range of Dutch merchant interests, forcefully co-opted local leaders in what is now Ghana to establish the colony of ‘Groß Friedrichsburg’ (also known as ‘Brandenburg Gold Coast’). Subsequently, the ‘Brandenburg-Afrikanische Kompanie’, mirroring the Dutch East India Company, was set up in order to merge commercial, geopolitical, and imperial interests. Though ‘Großfriedrichsburg’ was eventually “sold” to the Dutch in 1721 (having only been “acquired” in 1683), both the interest groups behind the renewed colonial enthusiasm of the 1870s-1880s, and the Third Reich, which named Friedrich Wilhelm the “creator” of the first German empire, deployed a romanticized narrative of Friedrich Wilhelm and ‘Großfriedrichsburg’ in order to (re-) legitimize imperialism within German society. Winfrid Baumgart’s contribution on the motivations of Germany’s renewed colonial ambitions in the late 19th century focuses on Bismarck, who famously stated that his “map of Africa was in Europe.” It argues that Bismarck’s personal motivations for supporting German colonialism and the hosting of notorious “Berlin conference” (1884-85), were not so much motivated by commercial or civilizational interests, but rather, driven by his disdain for the British Gladstone administration, and domestic political rivalries in the context of Bismarck’s uncertain political future in Germany after Wilhelm I.

Despite these contributions, the book falls short of critically examining the legacy of German colonialism. The six chapters dealing with “every-day colonial life” normalize extraction and violence by framing it in purely functional terms, and one can clearly depict an overcompensating strand throughout the book, which seeks to underline themes beyond “resistance and violence” instead of situating the “every-day” within the context of dominance and exploitation.

Though Gründer and Hiery rightly criticize the myth of the “good German colonizer” and his “loyal natives”, which was constructed to highlight ‘German superiority’ vis-à-vis other European colonial powers (frequently utilized) during the NS-regime, and somehow continues to be a popular myth, the book could have done more to confront this myth head on.

Hilke Thoda-Arora’s chapter on ‘colonial exhibitions’ (Völkerschauen), which were very popular in Germany and Belgium, is in an interesting account of how these exhibitions evoked a sense of “civilizational superiority”, which fueled “colonial adventurism” among spectators. Yet, the chapter, and the book-at large, fail to show how the legacy of Völkerschauen and “othering” more broadly, which are closely linked to German intellectuals’ heavy involvement in the creation of race science and craniology, continue to influence German’s present conception of Africans, and other people of color. These more ambitious questions would have not only made the book more accessible beyond the academy, but would have also allowed readers to realize that the origins of the politics of nostalgia shaping right-wing populism can to some extent be traced to Germany’s (and the West’s at large) unresolved colonial pasts.

Though the book mentions important contemporary debates surrounding remembrance in the context of monumentsstreet names, and children’s books, which have gained some attention in German media recently as well, there are deeper intellectual and societal questions to grapple with. The public discourse following the exceptional “wave” of migrants and refugees to Germany, which has de-facto normalized highly problematic if not racist points of view in mainstream discourse, and the subsequent rise of far-right violence demonstrate this. The continuation of empire nostalgia and racism aren’t monopolized by the AFD, which continues to poll at around 14%. One just has to listen to some members of the center-right’s (CDU) Bavarian sister party CSU (the former German development (!) minister said that all African men spend their money on is alcohol and drugs, the current (!) Bavarian interior minister referred to a black German singer with the N-word and the party at large continues to frame migrants and refugees as a danger) to understand that these ideas also influence the “mainstream.”

Controversially, Winfried Streitkamp’s chapter on warfare, resistance, and use of force questions whether the genocide against the Herero and Nama should be referred to as such, and whether it should be understood within the wider context of a history of genocides perpetrated by Germany. Without elaborating on the ample historical evidence, (If interested read this book by Prof. Jürgen Zimmerer) just consider the “extinction command” by German commanding officer Lothar von Trotha who ordered in 1904:

Within the German border, every Herero is to be shot with or without rifle, with or without cattle, I will not take in any more women or children, drive them back to their people or shoot them.

The denialist account articulated in the book, is especially relevant given the contemporary hypocritical and deeply troubling approach of the German government’s recognition of the genocide. After former speaker of parliament Norbert Lammert called on Germany to acknowledge the genocide in 2015, the German government initially committed to recognition, and there was some hope that Germany would find a resolution with Namibia, as well as individual Herero and Nama victims and activists. Yet since, Germany has refrained from utilizing the term “genocide” within the context of ongoing bilateral negotiations with Namibia, since fall 2015. Feeling excluded from the state-to-state talks, Herero and Nama representatives have separately filed for a class action lawsuit against Germany in the New York’s Southern District Court seeking reparations. Judges are currently deliberating on the admissibility of the case. Part of Germany’s defense strategy in the deliberation hearings included the repulsive argument that the international obligations under the 1948 definition of the term “genocide” cannot be retrospective. Meanwhile, German government envoy for Namibia Ruprecht Polenz (CDU) has ruled out personal preparations. In the context of continuous denial, and failure to speak with the victims directly, Germany not also fails the Herero and Nama, but also loses considerable moral authority in international affairs. In the context of the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the German parliament in 2016, and the subsequent appeal to Turkey to recognize the “dark sides” of its history, Germany’s moral authority to lecture any country on the politics of memory is greatly diminished.

Returning to  Gründer and Hiery’s work, it is shocking that a book that seeks to provide a “comprehensive and scholarly perspective on German colonialism” did not include any perspectives from historians from former German colonies. As Jürgen Zimmerer’s and Namibian Vitjitua Ndjiharine’s ongoing photo project “Visual History of Colonial Genocide” show, these collaborations unearth important insights and contest a memorialization of German colonialism, which remains to be decolonized and urgently needs to engage scholars from former colonies. As T.S. Elliott writes in his poem Four Quartets:

Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present  All time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction. Remaining a perpetual possibility. Only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been. Point to one end, which is always present.

* If you are interested in initiatives that attempt to grapple with German colonial history? Follow Koloniales ErbeMapping Postkolonial, and Berlin Postcolonial.  (On the topic of contemporary racism in Germany consider reading Mohamed Amjahid’s book Unter Weißen) .


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