Germany's public sphere is pervaded by colonial images. Street names remember colonial emperors, metro stations, pharmacies and other public places perpetuate racist depictions of Africans. Two weeks ago, public broadcaster MDR Sachsen used the N-Word to spark a discussion on political correctness. Germany has a problem with racism — but does not account for the origins of it. Past fall, the Human Rights Council of the UN published a report, criticizing the structural racism people of African descent face in Germany. The first suggestions to combat this: critical engagement with its colonial past. The state should recall its role in the history of colonization, exploitation, and genocide of Africans, is stated in the report. Germany is internationally praised for how it remembers the Holocaust — why is it forgetting colonialism?
Ruthless Ruler Ship
Germany's colonial period had started late and ended early — comparatively. While other European powers had already started colonizing abroad in the beginning of the 15th century, the German states didn't emerge as a colonial power until the foundation of the German Reich. After occupying the first bases in Africa in 1884, Bismarck invited the leading imperial powers to Berlin where the last unknown parts were split among them. The German Reich had several colonies in Africa, and each of them had their own history and purpose. Every colony tells its own story of discrimination, revolts, and bloody suppression. In German South West Africa, more than 12.000 German settlers arrived in the colony; the administration led with racial segregation and suppression. In 1904, the Herero tried to fight the occupation by attacking colonial establishments which resulted in Germany leading a war of extermination. Today, most historians consider the war against the Herero, as well as the Nama, a genocide.
In German East Africa, the colonial occupation led frequently to regional uprising, the local population fighting foreign domination and exploitation. The Maji-Maji Rebellion in modern day Tanzania in 1905 turned into a two-year-war that resulted in up to 300.000 deaths.
The beginning of World War I was the end to German imperialism. The comparatively short period of colonialism of thirty years serves as one of the main arguments, why Germany has not accounted for its colonial past. Yet the impact lasts until today.
Embedded in Society
During colonialism, racism was used to suppress the black population. The civilizing of the "savages" was used as an excuse to sell colonialism as a blessing. But racism and discrimination didn't only manifest in the actions towards but also in word. A colonial magazine wrote that the indigenous people were hopelessly unsuitable for any culture, and that the foolish N*** could be only brought close to a civilized human through hard work.
Prejudices and discrimination which emerged through this racism are still present. A working group of the UN Human Rights Council published a report on Germans of African descent in September 2017. The bottom line: They face structural racism. In the criminal justice system, housing, health, education and the employment sector. While efforts in the legal framework are recognized, the expert group is deeply concerned with the human rights situation. Their invisibility as a separate minority group permeates their daily life, while on the other hand their skin color is followed by discriminating attention, the report states. "The working group found that racial profiling by police officials is endemic. Stops, identification checks, searches and other controls by police are usually targeted minority groups, including people of African descent". High risk of imprisonment goes along with it, as well as excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and impunity. In several occasions, this had led to death.
Aside from that, Afrogermans face discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights. The curricula in some states fail to properly address the causes of racial inequality and injustice, by not covering the historical facts of Germany's colonialism adequately in school. An issue, that has also contributed to the structural invisibility of this minority. But not only does the education system not address this period, the national narrative still honors the perpetrators.
"Hangman-Peters" is in Town
Old city houses line one side of the street. A newly renovated retirement home stands on the other side. Karl-Peters-Straße is a small, cozy street in Walle in the western part of Bremen. Originally a neighborhood of the working class, who mostly carried out their job in the adjoining harbor, which strongly profited from colonial trade. Now home to a diverse community of students, migrants and families. But who Karl Peters was, is known by only a few.
Karl Peters was a politician, colonialist and researcher with a strongly racist attitude. In the colonies, but also back in Germany, Peters was known for his violence and ruthlessness. German press called him "Hangman-Peters", and the population in German East Africa nicknamed him bloody hand.
As the UN report states, such naming of streets and other public places indicates the persistence of structural racism as well as minimizes the crimes committed during Germany's colonial past. And there a several of these in every town. In Bremen, a small side street is named after Karl Peters. In Berlin, he has received a whole avenue and in Neuhaus at the Elbe a memorial stone. Colonial memory culture includes the whole country, but varies from state to state due to the federal structure. Among other rights, the German states own their cultural sovereignty: the public sphere, education, and cultural institutions are regulated by the state governments. Thus, the public discourse can take different shapes among the different state levels as well as in comparison to the federal level. The same goes for racism, depending on the measures each state takes.
Identity Needs Purpose
The end of Germany's colonization didn't mean that colonial aspirations dried up as well. "The Nazis definitely tried to keep the colonial spirit alive, but to different ends than the original enterprises in Africa", Christian Geulen says, visiting professor for history at Stanford University. The basic idea of colonialism was a fundamental conviction of Nazi-Germany and popular among the citizens. The groundwork of colonial scientists researching race was used by the Nazis for their inhuman theories and laws. There is a historical continuance between colonialism and the Holocaust — yet one is accounted for, the other one isn't.
"One can frequently see that memory, especially self-critical memory appears in certain areas but not in others", Wulf Kansteiner says, German Professor for memory studies at Aarhus University. States do not "have" a memory, but constitute one. "Memory culture of the Holocaust exists in some sort of cultural Ghetto, where self-critique is ritualized part of the discourse."
Memory constitutes identity. "Why memory becomes part of the culture depends on where one has set the pillars of its own identity", Kansteiner explains. Everything is intentionally and symbolically created; nothing is arbitrary. One key characteristic of the collective memory is the part of forgetting: it is not aiming for completeness, but is based on precise decisions. Thus, it is possible to remember the Holocaust and 'forget' colonialism.
Nietzsche calls it a "horizon", referring to a limitation of the field of vision based on the standpoint. The power of memories describes the ability to draw a line between remembering and forgetting, between the important and not important; between what is life-serving and what isn't. Because without such a filter, there could be no creation of identity, of character, and no clear activity-orientation.
The German standpoint has been evolving around the Holocaust – and the importance of everything is measured against it. It is the worst that Germany could have done — but it has been accounted for. Germany has created its identity around the Holocaust and distanced itself from other states, explains Kansteiner.
Yet, the way Germany is using the Holocaust to create its identity has not always been the same. Post-war Germany followed the strategy of collective silencing during the denazification by the Allies. A question of guilt was not asked and the perpetrators not named, because it was not considered useful at that time. The aim was to get state and society to function again — and a perspective of self-victimization and collective innocence served their purpose instead. With the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in the 1960s, this memory culture had changed — and the first critical examination took place.
Memory needs a purpose to become a part of the identity. And although it has been known for at least a decade that Afro-Germans descent face structural racism, it has not been enough of a purpose to account for its colonial past. The last century, Germany has undervalued the lasting impacts of colonialism in society — until now. Memory culture is a process, and it's been moving.
A Change in the Paradigm?
For a long time, the anti-colonial-memorial in Bremen has not received much attention. For decades, it has been weathering away, until it was about to get demolished in 2008 and an organization founded itself for protection. Since then, chair Gudrun Eickelberg is not only fighting to protect the memorial site — but for a memory discourse in general. "For a long time, the senate didn't have any aspirations to deal with colonialism", Eickelberg says. It took eight years for something to happen. "The constant outreach work has finally been of success", Eickelberg explains. "But also, the memorial was yet again frail."
Civic engagement and an inevitable issue triggered a re-definition of memory culture in the state. Since 2016, Bremen has a postcolonial memory concept. One, that is not only talking about the people involved, but also with them. "Acceptance is slowly starting to emerge", Virginie Kamche says. Born in Cameroon and raised in France, she is the founder of an African network in Bremen. "But tolerance and acceptance only work when people are educated and aware of an issue."
Dr. Anna Greve, who is officially responsible for the memory concept, says that the Senator has incorporated the suggestion to consider possible solutions to decrease structural racism that is perhaps given in administration and cultural institutions. Independent monitors like the UN Human rights council strongly criticize structural racism in Germany — while institutions still undervalue their existence.
Two years after the initiation of a postcolonial discourse in Bremen, the federal narrative is changing as well. For the first time, a governing coalition is naming a postcolonial discourse as one of their aims. Since the beginning of the 2000s, there had been occasionally movement — but increasingly in the past three years. A memory needs a purpose to become part of the national culture. Memory culture is not a fixed construct, but constantly re-negotiated.
Several factors influencing this have emerged. For one, intensive research by, among others, the University of Hamburg have shed new light on the historical facts surrounding Germany's colonial past — which has been followed by media coverage throughout the mainstream outlets. Moreover, since 2015 Germany has experienced an influx in refugees — with many coming from Africa. Structural issues have become more visible while trying to integrate them in society. "We had recognized this racism when the refugees came", says Eickelberg. "Take our language for example, and how we have tried to adjust our words." From the degrading term Flüchtlinge to Geflüchtete, for example.
One of the most important factors, according to Wulf Kansteiner, is the increase in right-wing populism. Memory culture is subject to negotiations and instrument of power. "When members of the parliament are openly racist, this can lead to people who are normally not dealing with that topic to critically engage and take a stand." Björn Höcke, politician for the AfD, has not only challenged colonialism in his speeches by tapping into biological racism, but also argued for remembering World War II differently. Political dissent as a cause for enshrine memory culture into politics stronger again.
Most recently, the descendants of victims have raised their voices. Germany has always had a considerably special relationship to Namibia, especially since its independence in 1990. Yet, Germany has not been engaging with the minority groups who suffered most under the ruler ship. First cautions admission of a genocide by the German federal state happened in 2004, during the 100-year-anniversary. In 2015, president of the parliament Norbert Lammert eventually acknowledged it officially.
But an acknowledgment of the genocide is not enough for the Herero and Nama, who still face discrimination in Namibia. The descendants of the victims seek reparations — and are suing the German government in New York. The trial continued yesterday, when Germany has made its first appearance in court. Results are yet to become public. The trial can lead to a redefinition of memory culture, Kansteiner concludes. "But only when crucial results find enough public awareness – like the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials."