German Colonialism, Suppressed Memories: A CIGH Interview with Jürgen Zimmerer

Professor Jürgen Zimmerer

Professor Richard Toye (@RichardToye) of the Centre for Imperial and Global History interviews Professor Jürgen Zimmerer (@juergenzimmerer) of the University of Hamburg on the theme of contested German colonial history.

RT: You recently gave a fascinating interview on the theme of repressed/suppressed memories of German colonialism. One point you made is that because Germany had had its colonies taken away after World War I, it did not go through the same post-1945 decolonization process as other European countries; rather at that point it had to deal with the legacy of the Nazi era. But in spite of that – looking at the reactions to your interview on Twitter – it seems that in terms of current debates the UK and Germany, at least, have certain things in common. When you draw attention to German colonial crimes, some Germans say, in effect, “But why do you insist on dragging this up? After all, other empires were much worse than ours.” Something similar happens in Britain – usually people suggest that the French or the Belgians were worse than we were. Why do you think this “whataboutery” or “whataboutism” is so prevalent?

JZ: Your observation is correct. My references to the first decades after World War II were meant to explain why what I call “colonial amnesia” could take place. By that I mean the marginalisation or nostalgic idealization of German colonialism in public perception. For the post-war generation the “colonial” question was a British or French one, etc. not a German one. On the one hand, Germany had “lost” its formal colonies already in 1919 and, on the other hand, after 1945 the memory of World War II and the Third Reich took centre stage. Interestingly, what was discussed was neither the Holocaust, which became a matter of broad debate only in the 1980s, nor the German war crimes in the war of annihilation, which led to huge debates in the 1990s, but rather German suffering from the war and German resistance to Hitler.

Already at that time you could find references to the colonial crimes of others, particularly of the victorious powers, what you so poignantly called whataboutery. It was meant to deflect from German guilt and was used as an argument that the enforced De-Nazification was unjust, and that only Germans were being forced to undergo such a humiliating experience. Later on the argument was slightly modified. Now it read: We take responsibility for the Holocaust, and this is enough. We don’t engage with colonialism, like the German genocide of the Herero and Nama people, because we already deal with the Holocaust, and now the others should deal with colonialism first. Now Germany was the role model of coming to terms with the past, attempting to gain the moral high ground.

RT: This is very interesting. In the UK, perhaps it is the other way round. “We stood alone against Hitler in 1940; this is our trump card against all criticism.” However, there is some acknowledgement that some aspects of the British Empire were at least mildly problematic. People argue, however, that taking everything in the round these aspects were eclipsed by benefits, most usually the railways … In Germany, do people try to do the same thing, in other words to claim that although there were some downsides, the German Empire was beneficial to the colonised?

JZ: Yes there was, but not too loudly in the last decades, because when the debate about Germany’s colonial legacy garnered public attention since the turn of the millennia it did so in a distinctively critical way. It was the centenary of the outbreak of the first genocide of the Twentieth Century, the German genocide of the Herero and Nama in German Southwest Africa, which first made headlines. Of course the older nostalgic view emphasized the “civilising mission”, the hospitals and the railways, but the narrative after 2004 was about ethnic cleansing and genocide. There have, however, quite recently been attempts by the Far Right to reintroduce the balance sheet approach to the understanding of colonialism, or an outright “defence of German colonialism”, as a new publication announces. At the moment these are (still) voices from the margins. One reason for that might also be that this mirrors early attempts at setting off World War II and the Holocaust against “positive” aspects of Nazism like “law and order” or the “Autobahn”, which profoundly discredited the balance sheet approach to crimes against humanity.

RT: It seems to me that these discourses are perpetuated by different groups of people. On the one hand there are politicians, pundits, and indeed some academics, who are doubtless quite aware of what they are doing. Then there are ordinary people who share and like the articles and perpetuate the tropes, either in conversation or in social media. The trouble is that these tropes can be very emotionally appealing – and people are often persuaded by the pundits that critics of colonialism are demanding that they personally are being blamed for events which took place long before they were born. I am not sure that we have developed the right persuasive strategies to win these people over – or at least to prevent them being captured by the other side. Any thoughts?

JZ: Your observation is absolutely correct. We are witnessing a resurgence of voices, which are working on a collective (national) narrative, in which the “civilising mission” is reaffirmed, and with that the superior role of the erstwhile missionary, i.e. the national actors. We must not forget that the last two decades, particularly since 9/11 and the War on Terror saw a re-vitalization of this idea, now under the heading of spreading democracy, when at the core it was traditional power politics.

In Germany there exists yet another layer, because it is widely accepted that German national history is tainted. Not many people try to justify the crimes of the Nazis (not yet at least). But already this term and the underlying discursive process is in itself apologetic, because who were the Nazis? These were German crimes! This language is part and parcel of a tendency to disconnect the history of the Third Reich from German history “proper”, thereby “rescuing” German national history. The Berlin republic tries to build on the new – or rather old – narrative of the German nation as Volk der Dichter und Denker (nation of writers and philosophers) and replace thereby that of the Volk der Richter und Henker (nation of judges and hangmen), as the Third Reich was called.

The debate about colonial crimes and colonial loot plays a major role in this. Because if there was a German genocide before THE genocide, the Holocaust, then the separation of German history “proper” and the Nazi history becomes even less convincing. Of course this is nothing new, if you look at Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Dialectics of Enlightenment” or Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and the Holocaust”. However linking colonialism to this challenges the Western narrative of progress and development,on an even more fundamental level: One reason why postcolonial and de-colonial approaches to history are so embattled.

RT: Since we started this conversation, Germany has reached an “agreement” with Namibia on the Herero and Nama genocide. How does that fit in with the themes we have been discussing?

JZ: Indeed, a draft agreement has been finalised by negotiators for the German and the Namibian government. However, this has been done without the consent of the majority of the Herero and Nama as the main victims of the genocide. Therefore it has not yet been officially signed by the governments. This signing has been postponed first because of protests in Namibia and now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which both the most outspoken Herero critic of the agreement, Vekuii Rukoro, and the most prominent Herero advocate of the agreement, Dr. Zed Ngavirue, who was also Namibia’s chief negotiator, have passed away.

But it is safe to say that this is already a landmark event, because for Germany representing the perpetrators of the crime, there will be no turning back. For the first time a former colonial power recognizes that genocide has happened in its colony at the time, that it should officially apologize for it and that financial contributions are due to remedy some of the consequences of the crime.

The German government may insist that “genocide” is used only in a moral sense not in a legal one, and that there are not legal requirements for reparations. It fears to set a precedent, with consequences also for continuing demands for compensation for crimes both committed in former colonies and by Germans during World War II. But the example is set now! And not just for Germany.

For Germany this will also have lasting consequences for official memory politics, because de facto there is now a genocide recognized before the Holocaust. It will be much more difficult to ignore the former although there is as of now no official monument for the colonial genocide.

However, the concentration on the Herero and Nama genocide also reveals a blind spot in the engagement with colonialism. There is now the acceptance that instances of violence and crimes against humanity took place within colonialism, single cases. We need to recognise, though, that there were not cases of violence in colonialism, but that colonialism is violence and it is a crime against humanity. There is still a long way to go.