Re-examining Colonialism The Past Is Never Dead

Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the Herero massacre, with his unit in the then colony of German South-West Africa in 1904;
Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the Herero massacre, with his unit in the then colony of German South-West Africa in 1904; | Photo (detail): © Bundesarchiv

Germany’s colonial past entails a considerable burden of responsibility that continues to this day. This is evident in debates about ethnological collections, the renaming of streets – and in the major question of how to deal officially with guilt.

“A century ago, the oppressors – blinded by colonialist fervour – became agents of violence, discrimination, racism and annihilation in Germany’s name”, said the then German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul on 14 August 2004 on the occasion of the centennial of the Battle of Waterberg in the former colony of German South-West Africa, modern-day Namibia. There, in 1904, tens of thousands of Herero were driven into the waterless Omaheke desert on the orders of the German Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha, where many of them died of thirst. “The atrocities committed at that time would today be termed genocide”, said Wieczorek-Zeul and apologized to the Herero: “We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time.” However, it was to take another decade before, in 2015, the German government described the massacre as “genocide”; yet to this day neither an official apology nor compensation payments to the Herero have been forthcoming from the German government.

Until 1908, the surviving Herero had to do forced labour in what was known even then as concentration camps. A substantial number of them died of starvation and disease. Apart from the Maji-Maji war in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania), the war in Namibia, which the Germans pursued with genocidal intent, was the longest military campaign, and the one incurring the heaviest losses, in a whole series of violent excesses which the Germans unleashed on their colonial territories.

Marginalising the colonial past

The short-lived German colonial empire, which lasted less than 30 years and encompassed territories in Africa and the South Pacific as well as the Chinese city of Tsingtao, came to an end during the First World War. In the interwar period this was often loudly lamented as a “loss”, and the Nazis forged plans to recover the colonies. Post-1945, however, the country’s colonial past long appeared to arouse virtually no interest in Germany. This doubtless had to do with the widespread tendency to equate colonialism with colonial rule and thus to assign Germany a place at the fringes of colonial developments. Indeed Germany’s colonial territories were of little economic importance and only of short duration overall. Germany seemed to remain unaffected by the subsequent imperial problems with which countries such as France and England were confronted. Dealing with the country’s Nazi past and the Holocaust were high up on the political agenda, as was Western integration in the context of the Cold War. Colonial racism and the exploitation of Africa, on the other hand, were issues which “the others” had to “deal with”. In the area of development cooperation, the Federal Republic of Germany presented itself as a partner free of any such burdens – and one whose politics were devoid of any neocolonial interests.

A new era of re-examination

It was only after reunification in 1990 that German colonialism generated a little more interest. However, the extent to which politicians still avoided acknowledging the genocide and crimes against humanity in the case of Namibia is illustrated by the handing over in 2011 of 20 Herero skulls to a high-ranking delegation from Namibia at the Charité hospital in Berlin. Prior to the First World War, the skulls had been brought to the German capital under distressing circumstances – as “material” for German racial researchers during the Wilhelmine era. The handover ceremony ended in uproar: the African delegation, including Namibia’s minister for culture, wanted more than simply to bring home the mortal remains of their forefathers. They finally wanted Germany to acknowledge the wrongs inflicted upon the peoples of Namibia by the colonial rulers.

The discussion began to move again in 2015. In the middle of the year, more than 150 representatives of politics, academia, religion, culture and associations launched a public appeal, stating “genocide is genocide”. A short time later, Bundestag president Norbert Lammert wrote in German weekly Die Zeit that the crushing of the Herero uprising, measured by today’s standards of international law, constituted genocide. Since July 2015, the following has been the German government’s “policy guideline”, according to the Federal Foreign Office: “The war of extermination in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a war crime and genocide.” Moreover, Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appointed Ruprecht Polenz, a CDU politician and the longstanding chairman of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, as special envoy for German-Namibian relations in order to drive forward the process of re-examining this dark chapter in their joint history. Polenz announced in April 2016 that this process would end with “an apology from Germany”. A German and a Namibian delegation drew up a declaration which is then to be approved by both parliaments.

It is also clear from the debates about the planned Humboldt Forum in Berlin that the colonial past is anything but dead. In this context, the colonial origins of the ethnological collections have thrown up questions concerning the legality and moral legitimacy of the acquisitions. Furthermore, there have been arguments in many German cities about the renaming of streets which bear the names of German colonial protagonists.

One major desideratum continues to be that German colonialism should be largely ignored in school teaching. Special Envoy Polenz announced that there would be “projects involving a shared culture of memory”, however – for example schoolbook projects which follow up on the experiences gained in re-examining the past with Poland and France. Colonialism cannot be redefined in such a way that is ceases to be a part of German history; its consequences remain present.