Colonialism as Shared History: Exploring Germany’s colonial past

A street sign with the street name Usambarastrasse

The African Quarter in Berlin: a sign of our colonial past. An examination of this period is overdue., © dpa-Zentralbild

07.10.2020 - Article

How can Germany’s colonial past be examined in collaboration with the countries affected by it? Is it possible to develop some kind of shared history? These questions are at the heart of a digital conference entitled Colonialism as Shared History: Past, Present Future.

Overdue examination of the German Empire’s colonial aspirations

The German Empire held numerous colonies from 1884 until the end of World War One. These included territories in modern‑day Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Namibia, Cameroon, Togo and Ghana. But it was not only in Africa that Germany’s aspirations to be a major power made themselves felt: colonies were also established in Jiaozhou in China and on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Nauru, the Caroline Islands, Palau, the Northern Marianas and the Marshall Islands. Germany’s acquisition of colonies was based not only on economic interests, but was driven above all by the desire to be considered a world power. This imperialistic worldview facilitated the commission of crimes against the native populations of some of these colonies – a close examination of this part of our history is urgently needed.

Global exchange instead of Eurocentrism

An examination of Germany’s colonial period is overdue. To this end, we need to engage in dialogue with the relevant countries, societies and individuals affected.

This fact will be underscored by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering in her introductory address at the academic conference Colonialism as Shared History: Past, Present, Future.

This international conference will focus on the following questions: Is it possible to develop a shared history? What opportunities would this provide for partnership in the future? What role do museums, education and research have to play in coming to terms with German colonial history? What projects could foster sensible and sustainable cooperation? The aim is to encourage global exchange in this field instead of viewing our past from a Eurocentric perspective.

The conference is a joint project of the Federal Foreign Office, the historians Dr Bettina Brockmeyer, Professor Rebekka Habermas and Professor Ulrike Linder, and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. Academics and researchers from around the world will be discussing the issues in various formats from 7 to 9 October. The keynote lecture will be given by Kenyan writer Yvonne A. Owuor and is entitled Direct Shards. The Roamings of Colonial Phantoms.

Assuming historical responsibility

The Federal Government’s goal of addressing Germany’s colonial history is enshrined in the coalition agreement. This conference makes a contribution towards this assumption of historic responsibility, which is also in line with the goals of the Federal Government Policy Guidelines for Africa.

It is hoped that the event will give rise to cooperative projects between Germany and the former colonies, especially in the fields of education and research.

Addressing Germany’s colonial past also plays a central role outside the conference at the Federal Foreign Office, for example, in dialogue with Namibia. From 1904 to 1908, German colonial troops brutally suppressed uprisings by the Herero and Nama peoples in what was then German South West Africa. Germany and Namibia are engaged in talks to address this terrible chapter in history politically.


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