The Humboldt Forum
“A Sign of Colonial Amnesia”

Schlüterhof courtyard with a view of the Alte Museum and the Lustgarten
Schlüterhof courtyard with a view of the Alte Museum and the Lustgarten | Photo (detail): Alexander Schippel © SHF

In December 2020, the Humboldt Forum was opened in the rebuilt Berlin Palace. The museum defines itself as a “place that links differences” and intends to deal intensively with the issues of colonialism in its programme work. The historian and genocide expert Jürgen Zimmerer takes a stand on what is probably Europe’s most controversial museum.

Jürgen Zimmerer highlights three problems with regard to the colonial core of the Humboldt Forum. On the one hand, it is about the tradition of ethnological museums themselves, which have a symbiotic relationship with colonialism. Linked to this is Zimmerer’s second, perhaps most volatile, point of criticism, which raises the question of how to deal with looted colonial art. “It’s mainly about the Benin bronzes. They are world-famous pieces and obviously looted art. 230 of them are to be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum”, says Zimmerer.

Looted Art

The Benin bronzes that adorned the palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria were taken to Europe during the British invasion of 1897 and then sold around the world. Around 1,100 pieces of the stolen goods are in German museums. Nigeria has been demanding the restitution of the works of art for decades. A week before the opening of the Humboldt Forum, the Nigerian ambassador to Germany also asked for the bronzes to be returned.
Zimmerer sees the third problematic aspect of the Humboldt Forum in the exhibition building itself. “Basically, it is supposed to represent the rebuilt Hohenzollern Palace. The last ruling monarch of this dynasty was Wilhelm II, in whose name the genocide of the Herero and Nama was committed between 1904 and 1908 in German South West Africa, and that too is a colonial core of the Humboldt Forum.”

Erasing the History of German Violence

Zimmerer interprets the reconstruction of the palace façade and the necessary demolition of the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the East German parliament, as an act of erasing the history of German violence. “The Berlin palace was badly damaged by bombing and was then torn down. This is a symbol of the world war that was begun by Germany. The division of Germany was a consequence of this history of violence. And that is now being erased in the capital of reunified Germany, architecturally restoring the alleged pre-1914 Prussian idyll.”

“We can’t tell the narrative of the people of the poets and thinkers without that of the judges and executioners; they are causally connected.”

 According to Zimmerer, the aim is to create a positive image of Prussia and Germany, removed from the debate about its criminal history. “Because of colonial amnesia, this is exactly what we have now in the centre of Berlin. In other words, oil is being poured on an incredibly overwrought history.”

People of Poets and Thinkers, People of Judges and Executioners

There is a lack of political will to recognise the historic violence, which also includes colonialism. “We can’t tell the narrative of the people of the poets and thinkers without that of the judges and executioners; they are causally connected.” Zimmerer indicates two pathways for a serious discussion of colonial responsibility. “For one, the restitution of the objects that are clearly known to be looted art. The Benin bronzes should be returned to Nigeria immediately. Some of the bronzes could then be exhibited in Berlin on loan from Nigeria.” According to the historian, these loans could be used to build and improve museum infrastructure in Nigeria.

Display Boards Aren’t Enough

Zimmerer’s second proposal is related to the genocide committed in former German South West Africa. “If we really want the Humboldt Forum to be a place to deal with colonialism, then display boards and a room of silence aren’t enough. I propose that the Schlüterhof, one of the inner courtyards that was reconstructed behind this Baroque façade, should be filled with sand from the Omaheke, the semi-desert in Namibia, into which the Herero were driven and where tens of thousands of them died of thirst, and the Rococo façade broken with barbed wire. So that no one who enters this Humboldt Forum, this Berlin Palace, this Prussian Disneyland, can ignore the question of colonial violence and the structural racism on which these collections are based.”