Speech by Foreign Minister Baerbock at the presentation of the book Das Auswärtige Amt und die Kolonien (The Foreign Office and the Colonies)

05.06.2024 - Speech

“History informs now. It informs our understanding of what we think and what we are, of what we believe about ourselves, about other people.” These are the words of Abdulrazak Gurnah. The words of the Tanzanian Nobel Prize laureate in literature, whose works bring the history of East Africa to us in the here and now. Gurnah does this with sensitivity. Especially when he describes the suffering and wounds which the Germans as the colonial power at that time inflicted on people in his home country and which have still not been overcome.

History informs now. How we understand our history today also determines our actions in the future. That’s what today is all about.

The book we are presenting, Das Auswärtige Amt und die Kolonien (the Foreign Office and the Colonies), therefore not only sheds light on the past but, above all, looks ahead to the future. For we cannot change our past. But we can reflect on our history in the light of the knowledge we possess today – and, together with our partners, we can learn lessons for the present and for our future.

In this respect, no book, no historical judgement is conclusive. Confronting this ministry’s history of addressing colonialism remains an ongoing task. Today is therefore not a one-off event but part of a strategy which we launched some time ago and which is designed as a long-term project looking both inwards and outwards at the question of how we as a ministry should address our colonial history.

This is in keeping with our coalition agreement, which talks of overcoming the continuities of colonialism, a task for our entire society, for all parts of the Federal Government. We at the Federal Foreign Office are doing our bit, in many different ways. Today we’re looking at continuities in the mindset and actions of our ministry.

And I use these words quite deliberately: mindset and actions. For yes, it concerns the broad lines of our foreign policy – our actions. But it also concerns the mindset on which these actions are based: the awareness with which we develop policy here together – I as the Foreign Minister but also each and every member of the Federal Foreign Office, as diplomats who have responsibility for our country’s voice in the world.

I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all those who promoted the idea for this book – especially my predecessor Heiko Maas, who made it possible for the process to be launched during his term of office.

My thanks also go to Martin Kröger, who in his capacity as deputy and soon-to-be head of our Political Archive made available the countless documents on which the book is based. In particular, I would like to thank our colleagues from Diplomats of Color – an initiative by mostly young members of the Federal Foreign Office. People who understood sooner than others that addressing our colonial history strengthens us not only outwardly but also inwardly – as an institution, a ministry, where we engage with each other in critical debate.

I don’t know how you feel after leafing through the book and reading some of it. It contains accounts of the most brutal violence alongside descriptions of the most banal bureaucratic processes. And the texts show how these two aspects are interconnected.

We read accounts of the actions of the German colonial masters in former German East Africa, where it is estimated that around 300,000 people were killed in the Maji Maji War alone.

We read of the wars of annihilation in former German South West Africa, of genocide inflicted there on the Herero and Nama peoples, for which our country has historical responsibility.

We read of the atrocities committed by German officers and officials, such as those carried out by the German police sergeant who recruited African mercenaries in Togo and lauded his own training methods as the Prussian way of doing things, with “curses and 25 lashes”.

And we read of how the colonies were administered from Berlin, from the colonial directorate-general at the Foreign Office and later from the Imperial Colonial Office.

How ignorance and miscalculations on the one hand and claims to power and domination on the other not only fostered but even reinforced the brutality in the German colonies.

Germany’s colonial policy was marked by injustice and violence. It was an inhuman and racist policy for which the Foreign Office bore clear responsibility at that time.

How should we deal with this legacy? I believe that the answer lies in the responsibility we have assumed for our present.

When Kenya’s President came to the Federal Foreign Office last year for an energy conference attended by more than 50 countries, he began his speech by drawing attention to another conference which took place in Berlin 140 years ago.

The Berlin West Africa Conference, at which the European powers staked their colonial claims and declared that the division of the African continent was an internal European matter. It was hosted by the German Reich Chancellor and organised by the Foreign Office.

And there was not one single representative of the affected territories at the table.

President William Ruto spoke without bitterness.

However, it was important to him to highlight Germany’s role in his continent’s colonial history. And how far many African countries have come since then.

I ask you: how could we conclude partnerships today for the future if we simply ignored this part of our history? If we were to say: our responsibility for your suffering is of no interest to us.

That's not how you build trust. That's not how you foster understanding and to establish an honest partnership for the future.

I believe that a values-led foreign policy involves asking ourselves: how do partners view our bilateral relations – in the light of their history. It involves being prepared to see the world from their perspective. We claim that our history shapes our foreign policy – that also applies to our partners.

That’s why it’s so important that we address the past honestly. We have to name and recognise injustice. And we have to engage in an open exchange with our partners, even decades later.

It was in this spirit that Federal President Steinmeier asked for forgiveness in Tanzania in November 2023 for the acts of violence committed by German colonial masters in the then German East Africa colony.

It is on this basis that we are talking to Namibia about how we can live up to our responsibility for the German atrocities, which culminated in the genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples.

We hope that this process can be concluded soon – not in the sense of drawing a line under the past but to advance this process of confronting our history and to build our partnership together for the future.

Recognising injustice and taking action. That’s also what the return of cultural property, which this Federal Government has made a priority, is all about. The return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria was a major first step.

While I was in Nigeria, but also when I handed back objects to the Kaurna people in Australia last month, I realised how important these objects are for people there. Because each individual object is a part of history, the history of the country of origin, of the society of origin.

Our next big task is the return process with Cameroon. We’re currently conducting many confidential talks on this.

And we know that these returns are complex processes. There are no blanket solutions. Because there is no blanket injustice or suffering and therefore also no blanket way of addressing the past in which we say that what we did with one country we’ll now also do with another country.

Australian Prime Minister Penny Wong put it aptly when she said that it can be painful to talk about history but that it’s needed for building a future together.

We’re working with different countries in this very spirit. I believe that we will do this best if we’re prepared to also question our own thinking to the present day.

It’s good that this book also looks at this issue – perhaps the decisive issue, namely how “colonial thinking” continued to live on in minds long after the end of the colonial era, also here in this ministry.

I became aware of this again when we commemorated the genocide in Rwanda in April – and during my visit to the country where I was able to speak to relatives of the victims. About the genocide in Rwanda, during which just under one million people were killed 30 years ago – before the eyes of the world.

When I looked at reports and speeches drafted back then in the public domain in Germany – but also here in the Federal Foreign Office – I was deeply shocked. We’re talking here about the 1990s.

In some instances, the massacre of the Tutsi was described as a tribal feud or as fighting in the jungle. As if violence was part of the make-up of these countries. As if it hadn’t been the colonial powers, including Germany, which had helped in the 20th century to divide the country more and more into the supposed ethnic categories of Tutsi and Hutu.

Indifference, relativisation: attitudes which prevented us from taking a closer look, which prevented us from understanding what was happening in Rwanda and acting.

That’s why it’s so important that we build our partnerships today on knowledge and understanding. This is the only way to move forward together, whether we’re talking about the climate crisis, pandemics, energy supply or the resolution of conflicts. We have to listen carefully to ascertain the concerns but also the strengths of the other side.

Here too, it’s important that we don’t presume to know what is in the best interests of our partners – as was long claimed with great arrogance in many parts of Europe, in the case of energy issues, for example, when we talked about the global South.

Because everyone knows best what is in their interest. If we build our global partnerships today, then it’s on this very basis: everyone rightly acts in their own interest and, at the same time, assumes responsibility for others, for our shared rules-based order. And then we find solutions which serve the interests of us all. For a genuine partnership is one which strengthens both sides.

With partners who take on responsibility for the problems of our time. African states are rightly claiming a larger role in international forums to this end. We strongly support this – whether it be in the G20, where the African Union is now finally sitting at the table, in the context of the reform of the UN Security Council or in other international organisations.

Because our joint rules work best if they are founded on structures which reflect today’s world. We see autocratic players trying to break these rules – using military power or maximum economic pressure.

And we see them trying to instrumentalise the wounds which Europe has left in the world – by referring time and again to Europe’s colonial history and styling themselves as champions of anti-colonialism.

It goes without saying that it’s grotesque when a country like Russia, that is currently waging an imperial war, does that.

But this message works. Unfortunately. We cannot paint a rosy picture of the world. The message works because it’s based on a perception which really does exist in many countries, namely that Europeans have never confronted their role as colonisers.

You can agree with that or not. However, that’s what I hear time and again in many places. There’s a comment I heard in South Africa which I cannot forget. When I discussed Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine I was told: “Yes, but Russia was there when we were fighting against Apartheid. You weren’t.”

We cannot ignore that. It’s the bitter reality: successive West German Governments failed to support the fight against Apartheid for too long. We cannot change that today. We could say now: “I wasn’t even born then.” Or we could say: “But there was also East Germany”. However, we can also simply live up to our responsibility. And that is what we’re doing. By listening and addressing these issues self-critically and working on building stronger partnerships for the future.

By reflecting and not relativising. Of course, we can point out that the then Soviet Union, which consisted of other countries in addition to Russia, is not Putin’s Russia today. However, I believe we’ll make most headway if we state clearly again and again – and here I regard self-reflection as a strength rather than a weakness: yes, it’s true we cannot undo the mistakes of the past but we can learn from them and shoulder responsibility for today and the future. I firmly believe that the more honestly and openly we address these resentments and our own past, the less room we’ll leave for autocratic forces and their cynical strategies. And the more room will open up for partnerships based on trust and understanding.

And perhaps we will encourage others in this way, through this self-reflection, to consider whether, for example, the Soviet Union really can be compared to today’s Russia.

That’s why I want to make it very clear that addressing our history openly, a self-critical policy of confronting the past, is part of our security policy. It’s the opposite of a chauvinist policy based on arrogance and supposed infallibility. Because being prepared to look at ourselves critically makes us stronger. If we’re prepared to listen – to the wounds of the past but also to the needs of partners today. Because that’s the very way to build international partnerships based on mutual trust. And thus also to strengthen our shared security, our peace and our prosperity, in the here and now, in our present day. And, above all, together in our future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

History informs our understanding of what we think and what we are, that’s what Abdulrazak Gurnah said. And that also applies to our role as diplomats. That’s why, also as part of our strategy on feminist foreign policy, we have looked inwards time and again, at our own ministry, at our own structures. In this spirit, as of this summer the training for all young diplomats will be focused on an even broader scale and more systematically on German colonial history.

And we will do more to raise awareness of our colonial history among our diplomats before they are posted abroad – with dedicated training courses and talks.

For I firmly believe that a ministry which is aware of its own history will be stronger as a result. In the outside world, as a player which benefits from global partnerships built on trust. Internally, as an employer which is modern and attractive because it embraces critical debate.

As a strong partner in the world. And as a self-confident voice for our country.


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