Suppressed Memory Messy, Painful, and Long Overdue

Over three days, “Latitude” presented artistic contributions and debates.
Over three days, “Latitude” presented artistic contributions and debates. | Illustration: © EL BOUM

What role does the colonial era play in the cultures of remembrance in Namibia, Germany, or India and how does that era influence the present? Urvashi Butalia, Nelago Shilongoh, Mark Terkessidis, and René Aguigah discussed this at the “Latitude” festival. 

By Daniel Welsch

As he himself admits, René Aguigah, moderator of the discussion “Suppressed Memory: Identity and the Politics of Memory on Trial”, asked the three experts an impossible question right at the start. He requested that they use one sentence to summarise the culture of remembrance of their home countries India, Namibia, and Germany.

For the feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia from Delhi, recipient of the Goethe Medal in 2017, the choice of events that are officially remembered and reappraised is particularly interesting. “If we look at the moment when India became independent of British rule in 1947 and was simultaneously divided in two countries, the violence that accompanied the partition of the country – our state does not want to remember that.” For the author of the book “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India” the reason for omitting the violence from remembrance policy is obvious. As she explains, “it interrupts the triumphalist story of independence.”

The theatre maker and performer from Windhoek Nelago Shilongoh uses an expression that is taken up again and again over the next hour by all the experts and becomes a central thread of the discussion. As she says, although important and long overdue, Namibia is presently in the process of “messy conversations.” “We’re talking about justice, we are talking about reparations, we are talking about repatriations,” Nelago Shilongoh clarified. The messiness of the conversations is not a disadvantage, though. On the contrary, it is crucial for success, because it questions the legitimacy of the dominant memory and counters it with a large number of voices and stories.

Freelance author and migration researcher Mark Terkessidis is familiar with these “messy conversations” from Germany and he, too, praises their productivity. “German memory culture is quite fixed on building monuments,” ascertains Terkessidis, who last year published the book Wessen Erinnerung zählt? Koloniale Vergangenheit und Rassismus heute (Whose Memory Counts? The Colonial Past and Racism Today). “We have these torturing debates about memory culture and these torturing debates are sometimes more valuable than the monument itself.” In Germany's politics of remembrance he criticises the very limited perspective, which focuses heavily on the Holocaust. Although understandable due to the incomprehensible magnitude of the crime, it tends to block out the crimes of the colonial era and thus the connections between colonialism and the ideology of Nazi Germany.

Are monuments even suitable as places of remembrance? And how do we deal with the fact that in Namibia and India many buildings and monuments from the colonial era dominate cityscapes, thus making the horrors of the colonial era ever-present? Who decides which events are remembered and how? And what impact does this have on the present? For even if remembrance is a process that relates to history, it always takes place in and shapes the present. This is why the conversations not only have to be “messy,” but also painful, as Urvashi Butalia explains, “Those conversations are very difficult ones, because in some way you have to confront your own complicity. The conversation allows you to see that human beings can do terrible things to each other – and one of those human beings might have been your father or your mother or your uncle.”

The English-language discussion “Suppressed Memory: Identity and the Politics of Memory on Trial” as well as many other debates and artistic contributions are available in the media library of the “Latitude” digital festival.