Ending the silence around German colonialism

At least 300,000 people died at the hands of German colonizers during its empire. These art projects are uncovering colonial histories to understand racism in Germany today.

Howie Taylor
4 May 2016
 Colonial Neighbours.

The 'Kamerun album' that kickstarted Colonial Neighbours. Credit: Colonial Neighbours.

"It started with an album, called the Kamerun album, it was given to him by the Grandmother of his wife, they found it in the attic."

Lynhan Balatbat works for Colonial Neighbours , a Berlin-based art project that collects objects and stories related to Germany's controversial colonial past. Lynhan is referring to the travel journal of a colonial soldier who was based in German Cameroon. Each photo from the journal provides an unsettling insight into the world that this soldier saw and took part in colonizing.

Finding this album began a journey into the homes of many other families in Germany. Colonial Neighbours is run by Savvy Contemporary, a Berlin art space initiated by Bonaventure Ndikung, whose relative the album belonged to. The project's endeavour is to bring Germany's imperial past into the open by making people think about how it affects their daily lives and how it has lived on in the present. 

As Lynhan says: “I think it's a very good way to try to build an alternative narrative. When you accumulate different stories from different people you give this room for exchange and through that you create a kind of counter-memory.“

Grassroots projects like Colonial Neighbours link the struggle to end the active silencing of colonial history to the struggle against racism in Germany today. If more people were aware of Germany’s colonial history, they argue, perhaps they would be aware of the structural processes of racial othering and alienation that continue in both Germany and its relationship to the ‘outside’ of Europe. 

“What are we doing today?”, Lyn says,  “What were the mechanisms that allowed for the alienation of someone else and the ability to say that Germany and Europe had the right to claim: 'this is ours“ 

Keeping secrets

In 1904 in Namibia, the land of the Herero and Nama was expropriated and thousands were rounded up and placed in concentration camps. At least 100,000 people were murdered. 

Perhaps you have never heard of German colonialism; it is less commonly spoken about than other colonialisms. The most common reasoning for this is that Germany lost its colonies too early for them to be of any significance (by 1918). It is often argued that the empire was short lived, and that it detracts attention from the crimes of the Second World War to discuss it.

Yet this narrative ignores the deep effects that the German empire had on the histories of the places that it colonized, and the extent to which Germany was caught up in racist fantasies just as all European countries were, and still to a certain extent are.

After the Berlin conference and the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in 1884, Germany took colonies in East Africa, South West Africa, and North West Africa. It had protectorates all over the Pacific Ocean, and territory in China’s Kiatschou bay for 99 years.

At least 300,000 people died at the hands of German colonizers. In Tanzania in 1905, the ‘Maji Maji’ rebellion against German rule led to retaliation by German colonists and the enforced starvation of approximately 200,000 people from various different ethnic groups. 

In 1904 in Namibia, the land of the Herero and Nama was expropriated and thousands were rounded up and placed in concentration camps. At least 100,000 people were murdered. 

The descendants of white German settlers who took over Herero and Nama land are still in Namibia, and they continue to own this land, which is 70% of the most productive agricultural land in Namibia.

Colonial rule influenced Germany long after the territories were lost. While certainly not equivalent, there are for example numerous links between German colonial rule and the Nazis. One example is German scientist Eugen Fischer, who undertook medical experiments in Herero concentration camps. He went on to train Nazi scientists and to write Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene, which was hugely influential for Nazi eugenic policy. Fischer also brought 300 Herero skulls back to Berlin with him. Only 40 of those skulls have been returned.

We are used to seeing the racist crimes of the Second World War as a peculiarly German aberration in an otherwise general triumph of European civilization. By calling attention to German colonialism, that story is de-exceptionalized. We see the extent to which German legacies of race have been bound up with the colonial legacies of Western Europe as a whole.  

Howie Taylor map.png

The German colonial empire 1884-1918

Telling secrets

In many major German cities, such as Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Münich, Leipzig, and Frankfurt, grassroots projects that attempt to inform citizens of that city about their colonial pasts such as Colonial Neighbours are becoming more and more prominent. Berlin and Hamburg ‘Postkolonial’, for example, conduct different tours of the city that help attendees to understand the relationship between locations in Germany and colonialism. Wherever you go in Germany, such traces of an actively silenced history exist.

In Berlin, for example, a number of street names in the city are named after German colonizers. Just recently on 9 March 2016, “Decolonize Mitte” (Central Berlin) came one step closer in the attempt to change street names that embody a racist and racializing past. “Lüderitzstraße”, named after Adolf Lüderitz, the founder of imperial Germany’s first colony, may finally be changed along with some other street names in the city’s ‘African quarter’.

The government, too, is getting closer to acknowledging the massacre of the Herero and Nama as a ‘genocide’. While the UN has been calling this a genocide since as far back as 1948, the German government has never officially recognized it as such. Last year, the president of the German parliament argued that Germany should recognize the massacre as a genocide. It has not yet done so.

Germany is no stranger to reparations, having given large sums of money to descendants of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Yet is has not been forthcoming on the question of reparations for its colonial crimes. This does not mean that it has not been demanded. Such reparative transformation is being argued for by the direct descendants of the Herero and Nama. In 2001, the Herero Reparations Committee took the German government and a series of companies to court in the US. They lost the case, but the fight for reparation continues.

The future 

It has become something of a cliché to say that colonialism in Europe has been ‘silenced’, ‘repressed’, or ‘forgotten.” Yet such metaphors ignore a fundamentally important element to the equation: silencing is a process. 

Every single European country that had colonies has invested energy into the process of silencing and forgetting the scale of criminality that was involved in colonialism. They know that to acknowledge the scale of the crimes committed would involve enormous compensation claims. 

Yet as with any attempt to keep a secret, these processes are always stalled, there has always been resistance, and right now there is resistance in Germany and in its former colonies to the process of forgetting its colonial period. 

In today’s political climate, in which Western Europe continues to propagate the myth of itself as more civilized, more liberal, more tolerant, such resistance is an important avenue of political hope.

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