Unbearable silence, or How not to deal with your colonial past.

Eric Van Grasdorff, Nicolai Röschert and Firoze Manji
2012-03-20, Issue 577

This special issue is a cooperation between Pambazuka News and AfricAvenir International.

The silence on Germany's colonial past has become unbearable – both in Germany and in the affected countries. The current government of the Federal Republic of Germany seems not to be ashamed to emphasise that Germany supposedly carries a 'relatively light colonial baggage' because it lost its colonies after World War I. However short the country's colonialist period might have been, it played a central role in the colonisation of the African continent. It was in Berlin that – on the invitation of the Kaiser and his Chancellor Bismarck – Africa was distributed among European countries in 1884–85. Well-functioning communities were brutally crushed in the clear aim to better control, dispossess and exploit the African peoples and their raw materials for the economic development of the imperial powers.

Germany, which has done commendable remembrance work about the Holocaust, seems to have forgotten or deliberately buried its violent colonial past. A past that hides the first genocide of the 20th century, planned and executed by the Second Reich or Kaiserreich. A past that laid not only the foundation for racist theories and pseudoscientific medical experiments on humans – in this case Africans supposed inferiority was to be proven – but also produced, with its concentration camps in Africa, the blueprint for the later Nazi death camps. The way in which Germany tries to silence this past seems to prove Dr Theo-Ben Gurirab right when he assumes that the reason for this genocide not being discussed and treated like the Holocaust is mainly due to the fact that it was aimed against black people: 'Germany apologised for crimes against Israel, Russia or Poland, because they are dealing with whites. We are black and if there is therefore a problem in apologising, that is racist.'

So we have good reasons from both perspectives – the African and the European – to get to know much more about this traumatic past, its continuity from slavery through colonialism to the Holocaust and Apartheid, and the way Germany and the other former colonial powers are dealing with it today.

By Eric Van Grasdorff, Nicolai Röschert and Firoze Manji

Germany's genocide in Namibia