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?

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