The Berlin Conference, at which the colonial great powers divided the African continent amongst themselves, began 135 years ago, on 15 November 1884. Spheres of influence were fixed and common rules on occupation agreed. To this day, the far-reaching repercussions are omnipresent. But our colonial past has been something of a blind spot in our memory. For far too long, we have ignored this chapter of history. Yet we are surrounded by relics of the time, not only in the former colonies, but also here in Germany.
We see these traces of colonialism in the display cases and storerooms of our museums, allegedly exotic objects from faraway countries, and in the statues and street names in our towns and cities dedicated to the colonialists. The legacy of the colonial era is also unthinkingly reflected in our language – in phrases like “a place in the sun”.
What some children of the 80s, my generation in Germany, believe to be an invention of the televised lottery comes in truth from the then State Secretary of the Foreign Office and subsequent Chancellor of the German Empire, Bernhard von Bülow. Demanding “a place in the sun” in a debate in the Reichstag in 1897 on German colonial policy, von Bülow was at the same time voicing Germany’s aspirations to become a world power.
Although our schoolbooks did show a caricature of Bismarck, knife in hand, ready to cut the cake that was Africa, that was about as far as things went in history lessons. Our colonial history was neglected for too long in Germany’s museum archives too.
And so, if we are to address and come to terms with this past, there needs to be a process of decolonialisation in our day-to-day thinking. Even now, the words “Africa” and “Africans” are loaded with deep-rooted prejudice and simplistic categorisations which derive from colonial attitudes. But this does not do justice to the continent’s diversity, never mind its potential.
Between Cape Town and Tunis, there are more than a billion people living in 54 states, a uniquely diverse range of languages and cultures. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be as many people in Nigeria alone as in the whole of Europe. Already, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa, and many African countries are on the verge of taking great leaps in their development.
This, too, is often forgotten against the background of the topics that dominate the news – poverty and continuing crises.
There also needs to be a more differentiated and equally focused consideration of the former German colonies. Every former colony, every historic context, must be examined. This applies to the former German colonies in Africa but also to those in Asia and Oceania. For this to happen, we need the capacities – but, above all, the clear political will.
The injustices that took place must not be forgotten. That is part of our historical responsibility. The current coalition agreement states, for the first time, that addressing German colonial history is part of the “basic democratic consensus”.
“No future without remembrance,” it says. With that, we have committed ourselves in particular to addressing German colonialism. Germany recognises its historical responsibility. We must live up to it.
The fact that there is growing interest in the matter in Germany and Europe is a good sign: the academic debate, museum directors and, not least, artists, are helping to drive this process. The discussion has reached society – and politicians, too. This is yet another indication of the important role played by civil society, the cultural sphere and academia in addressing the colonial past.
If we truly want to get away from the Eurocentric perspective, we cannot accomplish this huge task alone. Instead, we need to look at how the former colonies are addressing this past, and what actors are doing so. We need to talk with them – with their governments, but also with civil society, the victims’ descendants and the communities from those countries living in Germany. This includes the return of collections from colonial contexts.
The Federal Foreign Office wants to play an active role in shaping this debate and to create new instruments and formats for doing so. That is why, with support from the academic community, we are bringing together actors from the fields of research, art and civil society from Germany and the former colonies, in order to look at the history, present and future of remembrance of colonial history. In other words, it is not just a case of Europeans talking amongst ourselves about Africa; rather, we have set off on the road towards a shared history.
Last year, in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut and MARKK – Museum am Rothenbaum, we hosted a museum dialogue in Hamburg, and a follow-up event is to take place in Tanzania in spring 2020. We support the Goethe-Institut and the “Museum Conversations” it has organised in Africa. In addition, together with the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), we are planning an academic workshop next spring to address our colonial history. Together with the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, we will set up an “Agency for International Museum Cooperation”.
Other major impulses have come from the Federation, Länder and municipal umbrella organisations, such as the adoption of the “Framework Principles for dealing with collections from colonial contexts”, including areas of activity and objectives. Agreement has also been reached on the establishment of a contact point in Germany for collections from colonial contexts, to provide advice and information; half of the funding will be provided equally by the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, and the other half by the Länder. The contact point is scheduled to begin work in the first quarter of next year.
One thing is clear: in addressing our colonial past, none of us will be able to shy away from asking the uncomfortable questions. That will take energy, patience and courage, and will pose political and moral challenges. It takes courage to recognise one’s own mistakes, to question one’s own actions and thus to reach an understanding of the profound repercussions of colonialism.
Because the discussion of our past with Africa is at the same time the discussion of our shared future.
Or, as it says in the Federal Government Policy Guidelines for Africa adopted this year, “Europe’s prosperity is inseparably connected with that of our neighbour Africa.”
I am certain that, in addressing the colonial past, Europe and Africa have the opportunity to find a new affinity – a deeper understanding for each other and an attachment which can give them the strength to work together to shape today’s world.