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Opinion: Germany must address its colonial past

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

When ranking the ‘great’ empires of history, whether by size, longevity, or significance, the Imperial German Empire seldom makes the cut. Between 1884 and 1919, Germany had over 20 colonies spread across Africa, Asia and the Pacific – yet Germany does not consider itself a colonial power. For a country that has seen fit to acknowledge the many darker parts of its history, why doesn’t Germany want to address its colonial past?

Map of the German Empire in 1887. Photo: Trecătorul Răcit via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Ignorance plays a key role here: some Germans might be able to name Namibia as a former colony, but would struggle to think of the slivers of modern-day Morocco and Ghana, islands in the Pacific, or the Chinese cities of Qingdao and Yantai which also made up the German Empire. In other formerly imperialist countries – the UK being a prime example – colonialism is often closely linked to modern discourse surrounding race relations and immigration.

This has not been the case in Germany, where the lack of a ‘Windrush Generation’ – or large-scale immigration from former colonies – has meant the traditional social effects of decolonization are largely invisible within the German population. Unlike in the UK, no link has been established in Germany between the legacy of colonialism and contemporary issues of representation, discrimination, and cultural heritage.

Furthermore, the short lifespan, size, and sparsity of the German Empire have resulted in a prevailing opinion that German colonial history simply isn’t worth studying, being rarely mentioned in the history curriculum and textbooks. Museums eschew displays on colonialism in favour of larger exhibitions on the rise of the Nazis, the Holocaust, German reunification – all formative events within the development of the modern German psyche, which also carry an important message for society today. Yet, it was in the colonies that concepts of eugenics, racial superiority and concentration camps were developed and first implemented. Discussions of Germany’s imperial past might not detract from crimes of the Nazi era but instead provide an explanatory timeline.

Yes, there have been attempts to engage with Germany’s imperial past. But changing a street name, hosting a special (and temporary) exhibition, or commemorating an anniversary cannot really do justice to the memory of colonialism. They represent token actions implemented at government level rather than true social engagement with the meaning of Germany’s colonial past.

Nowhere is this clearer than the response to acknowledging the Herero and Nama genocide of 1904-8. In 2001, the Herero Reparations Committee took the German government to court demanding reparations – and lost. Last year, the binational museum project, ‘Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures’ oversaw the return of 23 objects looted during the colonial period to Namibia – on loan. Over 120 years after the event, the Nama and Herero people are still waiting for an official apology from the federal German government. If Germany cannot face up to its own colonial past, how can it possibly claim to be ‘postcolonial’?

Germany has proved perfectly capable of engaging and coming to terms with difficult aspects of its past – indeed, it has been widely praised for its approach to publicly confronting and remembering the Holocaust – so why not its colonial history? The German Empire may have ended in 1919, but Germany still has a responsibility to its former colonies: to work with them to acknowledge and to remember what happened there. Until Germany undertakes a new Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a process of actively and adequately engaging with its colonial past, it cannot claim to have entered an era of ‘postcolonialism’.


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