German Colonialism: Fragments Past and Present

By Mark W. Hornburg / May 25, 2017

Exhibition Review 
German Colonialism: Fragments Past and Present
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed by Mark W. Horburg

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the sort of German compound word that requires one to inhale deeply after pronouncing it, as if pausing to contemplate its significance. When conjoined, the word’s two halves—Vergangenheit, meaning “the past,” and Bewältigung, meaning something akin to “coping”—have been interpreted as a “working through” or “coming to terms with” the past. This term  is  employed most often in reference to the Germans’ ongoing confrontation with the Nazi period and the Holocaust. Since the end of World War II this effort has advanced in fits and starts—and for a certain segment of the German population it has entailed a portion of denial and rationalization—but relative to other nations Germany has done a noteworthy job of staring its past in the face. A visitor to the German capital can barely walk three meters without stumbling upon a monument, memorial, or museum commemorating some unsavory aspect of German history. In case someone might miss the point, one of Berlin’s most popular history museums, located on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, is unsubtly named “The Topography of Terror,” while an iconic public memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime sits squarely in the heart of the city. Though early critics of Germany’s postwar memory culture, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno,  might  object  that German memory had to be jostled—that Jewish and other victims of the Nazi regime forced Germans to “work through the past”—such public flagellation over national sins is difficult to imagine in most other national contexts. 

Left: The washed-out embankment between Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz, German South West Africa (in present-day Namibia, ca. 1910). A soldier of the German “protection force” rests on the rails. This railway was built to swiftly supply provisions to German colonial troops during the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples. (Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.)

An exhibition at Berlin’s German Historical Museum extends to Germany’s colonial period this effort of working through the nation’s past. Unlike most European countries with a bloody colonial history, Germany has made a serious institutional effort to debate this history. It wasn’t ever so. Germany’s colonial history includes notorious episodes such as the suppression of the Herero and Nama peoples of modern Namibia. In 1904, German authorities reacted to a rebellion against German colonial rule by butchering the Nama and Herero, forcing them off their land, and poisoning their wells. Survivors were placed in concentration camps to be worked to death. As recently as 2003, after visiting the Namibian capital Windhoek, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer declared that there would be no apology and no reparations forthcoming. It was not until 2015 that Germany acknowledged its role in the first genocide of the twentieth century, when the speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, published an article in Die Zeit admitting that the colonial command in Namibia had deliberately set out to annihilate the local population. Germany and Namibia intend to complete negotiations over this episode in June 2017. The Berlin exhibition on German colonialism, set to conclude mid-May 2017, couldn’t be more timely.

Right: An Oldenkott picture album titled “Germany needs colonies,” ca. 1934. Oldenkott was one of Germany’s oldest manufacturers of tobacco. This revisionist album pictures Germans as benign colonial rulers who were respected and loved by the African population. (Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.)

In the past three decades, scholars have demonstrated the importance of this period by illustrating that the legacy of Germany’s brief colonial era reached deep into the twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first. At the same time, scholars have drawn the geographic boundaries of German colonialism wider, revealing how a global movement  was adapted not only to different eras, but to different geographic spaces. In doing so they argue that using colonialism as a model for understanding German expansions into Eastern Europe makes it a more versatile category of analysis. This innovative scholarship has presented new questions and problems. Some critics have  complained that a once-marginalized topic has become overemphasized, and that scholars now see colonialism everywhere. Some argue that research on colonialism is too national in its focus at a time when German history ought to be globalized and colonialism considered in a global framework. Researchers of German colonialism also have been knocked for their lack of interest in the colonial “Other,” while research on “colonial fantasies” has been criticized for being disconnected from the realms of politics and power. Expanding the geographic and temporal boundaries of German colonialism can also make for the drawing of facile lines of continuity, contributing to a notion of German exceptionalism that places portions of the German national story outside of history. This exhibition engages many of these issues.

The subtitle of the exhibition admits to its fragmentary nature, though such “fragmentariness” is typical of historical exhibitions more generally. The curators have assembled hundreds of objects—including photographs, government documents, popular publications, figurines, clothing, weapons, flags, and other pieces of material culture—to examine the motives of the missionaries, merchants, administrators, settlers, and soldiers who built the German empire. These items illustrate, and in their time projected, the racial ideology that undergirded the project of conquest.

Left: A statue of notorious German colonial administrator Hermann von Wissmann was toppled by students in Hamburg in 1968 in protest of the legacies of German colonialism. (Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.)

At the same time, the exhibition places German colonialism in a global context and extends its discussion to colonial revisionism between 1919 and 1945 (or what is known as “colonialism without colonies”), demonstrating how revisionism evolved into the Nazi project to colonize Eastern Europe. In this region the mass murder of Jews, Roma, Sinti,   and other “undesirables” took place, while Slavic peoples were reduced to the status of serfs. The exhibition also details how the rhetoric of decolonization played out during the Cold  War  in  both  the  East  and the West. The West is represented by a broken statue of the notorious colonial administrator Hermann von Wissmann, which was toppled by students in Hamburg in 1968, juxtaposed to a film in which the protesting students explain their action. The East meanwhile is represented by a poster accusing the West German government of involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically  elected  leader of the Congo. This juxtaposition cleverly illustrates the point that in the West, anticolonial protest was directed at the West German state, while in the East it was a tool in the Communist critique of a capitalist West that was supposedly built upon a fascist legacy. In these ways, the exhibition incorporates new research that extends the boundaries of “German colonialism.”

Right: Cover of the left-wing magazine Konkret, featuring a story on the murder of Patrice Lumumba, February 20, 1961. Protestors in East Germany implicated West Germany and its “imperialist” allies in the assassination of Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who had accepted aid from the Soviet Union. Protestors saw the event as evidence of the persistence of colonialism. (Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.)

This admirable exhibition is not without its detractors. Decolonization activists and Namibian commentators criticized the curators for failing to include the voices of those directly affected, and protested outside the museum during the opening of the exhibition. At the same time, the museum’s guestbook records complaints that the exhibition is one-sided and unfair to the German colonial administration and troops. These complaints were echoed without irony in the German press. A critic in a Frankfurt newspaper (the well- known FAZ), for instance, noted that German colonialism had  had  its contemporary detractors. The same critic noted that the Germans left in their colonies not only the legacy of “genocide” and “the whip,” but also schools and railways, dictionaries and churches. This is the very argument made in defense of Britain’s colonial administration—and not incidentally, by representatives of Germany’s right-wing political party, Alternative for Germany, whose politicians yearn for a more “positive” interpretation of German history. “Working through the past” is apparently still a “work in progress.”

Some complaints are to be expected. Historians have struggled with the dearth of sources that might bring to this narrative the voices of the colonized. At the same time, in making the genocide of the Herero and Nama a central theme of the exhibition, the curators have deliberately politicized it at time when it is already a subject of public debate. (Across the street from the museum, a reconstructed Prussian palace that will house Berlin’s ethnological museums nears completion. The irony could not have been lost upon the Deutsche Historisches Museum’s curators.) Other issues of content might be raised. For starters, the role of economics as a driver of colonialism receives short shrift. While there is some mention of the cotton industry, the crucial role of the Kolonialgesellschaft and similar societies is ignored. Also, while German colonies in Africa receive much attention, colonies in the Pacific are relatively neglected.

A further objection may be raised about the matter of periodization. Despite exploring lines of continuity to the Nazi era and beyond, German Colonialism extends the perplexing habit among historians of demarcating an era of “official” German colonialism that excludes the Nazi era. According to its traditional periodization and categorization, “German colonialism” began in 1884 with Germany’s formal administration of colonial territories and ended either with the beginning of World War I, when Germany’s African and Pacific colonies were occupied within the first weeks of the war, or with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, when Germany was formally stripped of its colonial possessions. This definition of German colonialism limits Germany’s colonial empire to the present nations of Namibia, Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Samoa, northeastern New Guinea; the Chinese province of Kiaochow on the Shantung Peninsula; and the Pacific islands of Bismarck, Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana.

Understanding how the colonial era has resonated beyond its official periodization is crucial to grasping current issues in German domestic culture and politics, and on this score this exhibition deserves some credit. But by sticking with the traditional periodization of German colonialism, which supposedly ended with World War I, the curators recreate a European/Non-European binary that reinscribes the racial thinking typical of colonialism back into its history. Colonialism, we are to understand, does not happen to white Europeans. As Aimé Césaire famously suggested, what Europeans could not forgive Hitler for was “the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.” Hitler and the administrators of occupied territory in the east referred to their project there in explicitly colonial terms. Though it risks encouraging teleological thinking, folding the Nazi era into the history of “official” German colonialism once and for all would do away with this problematic dichotomy.