Speech by Minister of State Katja Keul on the occasion of a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the execution of Rudolf Manga Bell in Cameroon
Colonialism led to unimaginable suffering. It destroyed the lives of many people in Africa.
King Rudolf Manga Bell was one of them.
We are standing today at the spot where he and his comrade-in-arms Ngoso Din were hanged in 1914.
They were executed by the German colonial administration – in the name of the German people.
This sentence was not an act of justice, but one of injustice.
I bow before the two men as a representative of the German Government.
I’m grateful to be able to pay tribute to the memory of King Rudolf Manga Bell together with you today.
Rudolf Manga Bell attended a German school in Cameroon.
He lived in Germany for a number of years – in Aalen.
He believed in the German rule of the law and in the equality of all people before the law.
He addressed a petition to the German Reichstag as part of his efforts to oppose the expropriation and resettlement of his compatriots.
He was hanged for this here on 8 August 1914.
An eyewitness recorded his final words: “You are hanging innocent blood. You are killing me for nothing. The consequences will be much greater.”
Given all that we know, his trial didn’t remotely conform to the principles of the rule of law, even by the standards of the time.
Many people were aware of this even then.
The German Social Democrat Paul Levi told the German Reichstag that Rudolf Manga Bell had been murdered despite being innocent.
A newspaper ran the following headline: “The judicial murder of Bel and Ngosso Din”.
But far too many people remained silent.
That was the order of the day during the colonial period. And this state of affairs persisted for a long time, also in the Federal Republic.
In Germany, we either played down or ignored the colonial period for far too long.
As a society, as a government, and also as the Federal Foreign Office.
After all, the Federal Foreign Office was also part of this systematic colonial injustice.
Let me put this quite bluntly: European colonialism was an unjust system.
In March 1914, the Association of Cameroon and Togo Plantations called on the German Parliament for the Douala to be expropriated.
The Association reasoned that not only the Europeans would benefit from this, but also the people in the region. After all, weren’t they also building water pipes and roads?
But this wasn’t about water pipes and roads. It was about economic interests and national power politics.
Colonialism was nothing but systematic exploitation.
Resources were plundered and borders drawn indiscriminately.
As the German Government, we are determined to face up to this chapter of our history and to put an end to the shortcomings in coming to grips with it.
For example, we at the Federal Foreign Office have launched a scholarship programme in which we are supporting research by doctoral students from countries with a colonial history into the role of the German authorities during the colonial era.
And within civil society, too, more and more people in Germany are taking an interest in the crimes committed during the German colonial era.
These crimes include the fate of King Rudolf.
The highly regarded and well-attended exhibition at the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt (World Cultures and Arts, MARKK) in Hamburg has contributed a great deal to this.
The German municipalities where King Rudolf Manga Bell lived for a time are also taking tangible steps to preserve his memory.
Most recently in Aalen and in Ulm, where you, Your Majesty, were also present in person. In so doing, you lent a special sense of dignity to the inauguration of Rudolf–Duala-Manga-Bell-Platz.
And so King Rudolf stands today as a bridge-builder between our cultures for the values that unite us, for the fight against racism, tyranny and the law of the strong.
We therefore want to work together to explore ways to commemorate King Rudolf Manga Bell in a dignified way in Germany and in Cameroon.
This is why I have come here to listen to you today.
I want to hear what expectations you have of efforts to come to grips with the past.
You laid the foundations for this when you visited me at the Federal Foreign Office, Princess Marylin. I would like to thank you for this.
The aim now is to think about the next steps together.
While we cannot undo this injustice, there are certainly things that we can do.
We can, first of all, try to reconstruct the trial that took place at that time.
With this in mind, I have arranged for all the documents available in the Federal Archives to be passed to me. The files are freely accessible online.
The Archives contain the petition submitted by the Association of Cameroon and Togo Plantations as well as a large part of the investigative files: from the lawyers’ correspondence to the minutes from the examination of witnesses.
Unfortunately, the actual file for the trial and the verdict are missing.
I promise you that I will continue to search for these files.
That is why I met the Director of the National Archives yesterday on my visit to Yaoundé.
Secondly, we have to admit that we know shockingly little about jurisprudence in the former colonies.
We will therefore set out to research this part of colonial rule, to better identify systematic injustice and to call this out clearly.
And, thirdly, we will work together to explore ways to adapt the Hamburg exhibition on King Rudolf to the requirements for display here in Cameroon.
It would be an honour for me to be able to take part in this endeavour.
I would like to thank you, Your Majesty, and your entire family most sincerely for your reception and for this special opportunity to pay tribute together to the memory of King Manga Bell today.
Thank you very much.