Bilgin Ayata: German Colonialism is Still Taboo

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(Photo by Thomas Andrew (1855-1939) and possibly others (Galerie Bassenge) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Bilgin Ayata

Bilgin Ayata

Dr. Bilgin Ayata received her PhD from the department of political science at Johns Hopkins University and is currently an assistant professor in social sciences at the University of Basel.  Her research interests include postcolonial international relations, migration and the politics of memory.

Visit Bilgin Ayata’s academia.edu website.

 

 

 

In a recent article written for Germany’s Zeit newspaper, the president of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, referred to the massacre of Herero and Nama peoples by colonial troops in German South-West Africa as genocide. Is this a sign that Germany is ready to confront the brutality and legacy of its colonial past? In an interview with kultur360 contributor Talia Baroncelli, Dr. Bilgin Ayata provides some context and expresses doubts. Below are some edited excerpts from their discussion.

Recently Norbert Lammert, the president of the federal parliament, referred to the killing of over 65,000 Heroro and Nama between 1904 and 1908 as genocide. Do you see this as a real recognition of the atrocities committed?

Well, maybe I would like to start to answer this question with a much more general comment. The question you just asked would probably make no sense to an ordinary German citizen. Most people would not know who the Herero are, where they are and why the German Parliamentary President is making any statement in this regard. So before we discuss any official level I think it is very important to highlight and remind that German colonialism is still a completely taboo topic in Germany. This cannot be underestimated. The key issue here is that Germany at a global level is probably the country that stands out most when it comes to confronting its past. I don’t think there is any other country that has [to the same extent] been held up as an example for actively confronting its past.  But this confronting of the past is limited to 1933-1945. When it comes to German colonialism – forget about the ordinary citizens – I can tell you from my own personal encounters with many academics who are not able to list the names of German colonies — there is really little knowledge about what it entailed. The general view in Germany is that colonialism is something that happened elsewhere in Europe but in Germany it was a small footnote in history with no lasting consequences. This is the general perspective and it has not changed significantly even today. What is happening, though, is increased pressure from very small groups, civil society activists—they call themselves memory activists—mostly organized around the African community or descendants of survivors of the former German colonies who have been mobilizing and trying to bring this issue to the fore. If there is any engagement it is thanks to the memory activism these groups have undertaken.

It was only when I went to the US for study abroad that one of my professors asked me how the Germans teach about the Herero. I had never heard about it. And this was in 1996.

And when I talk about this I should not exclude myself. I can’t even be judgmental about the complete erasure of the colonial episode from German history. I was born and raised in Germany, I did all my schooling in Germany, I studied in Germany and yet I had never heard about the Herero-Nama genocide in Germany. I was extremely engaged in the study of the Holocaust –I always went beyond what was offered in school and did my own personal research, but it was only when I went to the US for study abroad that one of my professors asked me how the Germans teach about the Herero. I had never heard about it. And this was in 1996.

The predominant narrative is that Germany lost its colonies, that this was a traumatic episode in German history, and all of this led eventually to Nazism because this feeling of loss and inferiority only fueled fascism later on. Well, this may well be the case in terms of historical linearity, but by excluding the entire colonial episode from that narrative you are posing Germany as a victim and not a perpetrator. Germany had a very short colonial period – that is true, it is really one of the shortest colonial periods, 1884/5-1915, 30 years. But, even though it was just 30 years it was one of the most brutal and also most expansive colonial powers. To just say that Germany began very late in this enterprise and lost its colonies is a powerful result of conventional historical narratives that look at the perspective from the state and not from the perspective of those who were subjected to colonialism, where this apparently small period has shaped the country’s future until the present. Even though Germany had one of the shortest colonial periods, one of its colonies, present-day Namibia, only received independence at the latest stage, in 1990/1991.

So this process of decolonization took much longer than German colonialism.

Yes, and I would have to add I am not so sure to what degree decolonization is happening in an effective way since descendants of German settlers still own over 75% of fertile land in Namibia. After Germany lost German South West Africa it was eventually annexed by South Africa and until 1990 Namibia was under the rule of South Africa, so apartheid laws that were in place in South Africa were in the same way in place in Namibia. Namibia was the only country where Germany sent large numbers of settlers, and the apartheid laws that prevented Black Africans from owning property completely benefited German settlers who were in the country and maintained their property throughout. After independence some stakeholders in the Federal Republic of Germany got really worried about what would happen to German settlers in Namibia. Would something like the 60s in the Congo repeat itself? And this is when the first parliamentary resolution was brought forward in the German government by  members of the CDU who asked the government to intervene and to take an active part to ensure that human rights would be applied equally to everybody.

Particularly to the German settlers.

This is not addressed there, but there is a strong emphasis that Germany has a special responsibility to Namibia because of the Germans living there. We need to regard the recent comments by Lammert in this context. Given that Germany officially and actively has been refusing to call the very first German genocide of the 20th century a genocide is really the point one must consider. The real scandal is that Germany, for whom the coming to terms with the Holocaust is almost a constitutional necessity, where confrontation with that past has such a prominence that it is a shared value in society, is also a country of denial… — it’s really very hard to understand how this duality is possible. And this is what I have been doing in my latest research where I compare the discourse of denial of the German government to the country most known for genocide denial, which is Turkey. And in fact in some of the arguments I see a very strong parallel.

The real scandal is that Germany, for whom the coming to terms with the Holocaust is almost a constitutional necessity, where confrontation with that past has such a prominence that it is a shared value in society, is also a country of denial.

Why do you think it is at this point in time that Norbert Lammert has decided to use the term genocide?

He has not made any single decision on his own. For some time now there is public pressure by select small groups, memory activists in Germany, but what really matters is what the Herero representatives have been doing. The fact that Namibia reached independence so late, in 1991, means that there was no governmental pressure at all on Germany to actually confront this history. So with Namibian independence for the first time the Herero and Nama could mobilize around this issue.

Now, because of this genocide the Herero and Nama are a very disempowered group within Namibian society. But in 2001 the main Herero chief actually filed a lawsuit in D.C. against the Deutsche Bank and another firm that ran a concentration camp in Namibia. The lawsuit was not successful, but for the first time the Herero took very important action.  In 2004 at the centenary of the Herero-Nama genocide, the minister for Economic Cooperation actually went to Namibia and participated in the commemoration events. This was the most important turning point where a German politician went and asked for forgiveness from the Herero and Nama people. But this was not an official apology. In this very same year, Chancellor Schröder was doing a tour through Africa and he visited South Africa but not Namibia.  So it was clear that the government saw the necessity for symbolic acts but not for substantial acts.

Now the efforts among the Herero and the Namibian government and to a large degree small NGOs in Germany have been pushing this issue and a couple of opposition party members, especially in Die Linke, have been bringing in resolutions and motions pressuring the German government to recognize the Herero-Nama massacre as genocide

To finally answer your question, tbe reason why Lammert has now referred to the atrocities in Namibia as genocide is that this year the German government passed a resolution in which it recognized the Armenian genocide as genocide. It actually did that before but this year was the centenary of the Armenian genocide and there was a lot of media and public interest in what the German government was doing. Just to clarify, the argument that the German government has made in all its responses to motions by Die Linke is also the argument that Turkey has made to justify its denial of the Armenian genocide. The argument is that the genocide convention was in 1948 and Germany signed the convention in 1951 and it became a law in 1955 and this law cannot be applied retrospectively. There is a special clause that recognizes the Holocaust as genocide, but beyond that the German government says it cannot make a decision whether this is genocide or not. By positioning itself towards the Armenian genocide, which happened in 1915, the German government actually paved the way for the NGOs and opposition parties to say, OK what about the Nama-Herero genocide? This happened in 1904.

The argument that the German government has made in all its responses to motions by Die Linke is also the argument that Turkey has made to justify its denial of the Armenian genocide.

So this was more pragmatic, party politics. Now the Herero have intensified their efforts, a delegation came and gave a petition to the German parliament and a few national and international media reports talked about the genocide. So Lammert made this statement but this should not confuse anyone that this comes close to official recognition. Official recognition has to come from the Chancellor or the President and there are certain elements to an apology that have to be given and these have not been given yet.

 

 

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