Speech by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering at the digital conference entitled Colonialism as Shared History: Past, Present Future

07.10.2020 - Speech

Recording studios are designed to absorb sound. They are hermetically sealed and prevent unwanted sounds from getting into or out of the room. No ambient noise. No distractions. But no discordant sounds either.

The way we still talk about colonialism in Germany sometimes reminds me of such a recording studio.

The song that was on our lips for a long time in Germany was entitled “Innocent”.

And so the lyrics went: Other European colonial powers were guilty of a great deal. The German colonial period, instead, was too short to cause great harm. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a broken record here.

It’s not that people didn’t sound the alarm early on.

In 1884, August Bebel gave a speech to the German Parliament in which he clearly spelled out the crimes of colonialism:

“Basically, the essence of all colonial policy is the exploitation of a foreign population to the highest degree. [...] And the driving force is always the acquisition of gold, gold and more gold.”

So, how could it be that, in the public perception, the German colonial period was associated for so long with exoticism and adventure, but not with murder and exploitation?

The tone has changed in recent years. This is not least thanks to the work of many people in academia and civil society who have not ceased to question the old refrain.

We have begun to face up to our own historical responsibility. The coalition agreement put it on record as an important objective – for the first time.

And: We have begun to draw conclusions from our responsibility.

During my trip to Namibia in 2018 I said: The crimes that Germans committed against the Nama and Herero in Namibia would be called genocide if we were to apply today’s legal standards.

I’m grateful that the negotiations with Namibia in recent years have been conducted in a constructive spirit on both sides – and will hopefully soon be brought to a successful conclusion.

Last year, we adopted framework principles on how to deal with collections from colonial contexts. This August, the central point of contact for the Federation and the Länder began its work.

These are important steps. But we mustn’t stop there.

Let’s open up our global recording studio and invite people to strike a new chord together.

Having a common history doesn’t mean questioning historical responsibility.

The colonial rule has left deep wounds in many countries, especially in Africa. These must be acknowledged and taken seriously.

This must be the basis of a joint dialogue.

After all, we’re facing enormous challenges as a global community. Coronavirus is but one of them.

We still only have one planet where we can live. And we’ll get along much better here if we work with and not against one another.

We will only be able to preserve our planet’s resources and our livelihoods by joining hands. Everything is part of everything else.

And: We have to admit that inequality is still immense. Even though we have tried our best in recent years – we haven’t always met with success across the board.

That’s why it’s right and important to assume responsibility as an economically strong country and adopt a supply chain law in the near future.

Against the background of these challenges we need a global exchange of ideas. And we should also be much more open to solutions from non‑Western societies for a sustainable world.

My impression is that these concepts are still taken up far too little in Europe and the US. In the face of a globalized world, however, we can no longer afford not to listen to each other.

And: We must also bear in mind that the way the world sees us is also part of the process of building relationships based on a spirit of partnership. Are we an attractive partner at all? Or are there others out there who have more to offer?

Ladies and gentlemen,

The UN Charter enshrines the equality of all human beings. Cultural policy can certainly make only a small contribution to turning this into reality – but perhaps also a decisive one. This applies not only to African countries, but also to other parts of the world, such as Latin America. For example: What are we doing to protect the rights of indigenous peoples? How do the grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement make a difference?

How we treat each other, how we encounter one another, how we foster understanding for each other – that’s a cultural question.

We need to develop a common understanding for each other; an understanding that not only draws on the here and now, but also on the past: on shared experiences and lessons learned. This understanding and sense of connection can give us the strength we need for shaping this world together.

Those of us present today are united by a common conviction, namely “us together” instead of “me first”. But this shouldn’t be taken to mean that everything is fine, or that the last word on the subject has been said.

There’s plenty of things to discuss, such as school education, university curricula, the names of streets and squares in our cities, as well as the work being done in museums to handle collections from colonial contexts.

But what’s important here is that this dialogue must be held across the entire spectrum of society. That’s important, because the old refrain of colonialism continues to reverberate. It’s a catchy tune that’s difficult to get out of your head.

Time and again, for example, people make sweeping statements about Africa – mostly along the lines of a continent of crises and disasters. Very few people are aware that more than one billion people live in 54 countries in Africa; that Cairo and Cape Town are thousands of kilometres apart; or that more than 2000 languages are spoken on the continent.

We must counteract this ignorance, because it’s a breeding ground for prejudice and racism.

This is another reason why it’s important to address blind spots in our own colonial history. As the Federal Foreign Office, we want to go ahead. We’re celebrating our 150th anniversary this year, an anniversary that should also be an opportunity for self‑critical reflection. Too often in our history, German diplomacy has lacked a moral compass. This certainly includes the colonial period.

I therefore think it would be good if we were to take a closer look at the role played by the various authorities and offices of the German government in the colonial era.

Why not award scholarships for this work, for example? And not only to researchers from Germany, but also to those from the former colonies.

I also believe that the colonial era should be much more firmly a part of history lessons than has been the case to date. It should be accorded its rightful place in textbooks in the future. Colonialism isn’t a historical footnote, but continues to shape the lives of billions of people today.

Incidentally, the digital transformation offers many opportunities to take new approaches to the subject also beyond textbooks. Why not use the internet, for example, to hold joint discussions between school classes from Europe and Africa? This would allow pupils to exchange ideas directly with their peers in the respective other country and to improve their English or French language skills along the way. That would be interdisciplinary teaching in the best sense of the word.

I’d be delighted if you could take up such ideas and discuss them during the conference.

I know that these are issues that some of you have been dealing with for quite some time.

At the end of the day, we also need a new approach to the way in which the colonial era is presented in museums. It’s good that exhibitions now have a much stronger focus on joint curation and exchange, be it in Bremen, Hamburg or Stuttgart.

The Humboldt Forum is also seeking to exhibit artefacts from faraway countries, not like in a shop window display, but rather as a genuine meeting place.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m delighted that we’re able to welcome a great number of researchers from all over the world today. In addition to your expertise, you’re also bringing your societies’ perspective to the table.

This is an indispensable prerequisite for this conference to take us a step further in the great task of understanding the colonial period as a “shared history”.

How can we develop a common perspective on history?

What models are there for a common future?

Which ideas can help us to create sustainable projects, institutions and places of reflection?

That’s what today is all about. I, for one, am very much looking forward to our discussions in the coming days. For us at the Federal Foreign Office, it’s already clear that we want to continue this dialogue and our efforts.

I would like to extend my special thanks to Dr Bettina Brockmeyer, Prof. Rebekka Habermas and Prof. Ulrike Lindner. They elaborated the concept of this event and initiated the conference with a great deal of dedication. And: they have truly demonstrated their staying power in making this academic exchange possible together with us.

Actually, we wanted to meet here in Berlin back in May, but coronavirus put a hole in our plans. I’m therefore all the more delighted that we can open this conference together in this virtual format today.

Last but not least, allow me to say a big thank you to the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which has been an instrumental and reliable partner in the work to organise this conference, always injecting important impetus into the preparations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We need a broad‑based social dialogue more than ever today. Not a hermetically sealed recording studio, but the chorus of the many: academics and artists, and also a broad spectrum of civil society in Europe as well as in the countries with a colonial history. The song that will emerge from this will be multifaceted. It will, to be sure, have ambient noises and perhaps also some discordant notes. But I can tell you: This shared melody, this shared history will be something really great.

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