Remembering and Forgetting Genocide in Germany

By Kocku von Stuckrad

Most of history is forgetting. In fact, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us: “Forgetting is the emblem of the vulnerability of the historical condition taken as a whole” (p. 284). Remembering, then, is an active engagement with the past to provide meaning for the present. And it is highly political.

Societies remember their past in museums, at memorials, in political ceremonies on anniversary dates, in textbooks, and in public debates. Recollection, selection, and activation of the past become especially sensitive when this history involves atrocities such as genocide, slavery, or war crimes. Questions then arise as to how societies deal with guilt and shame, as well as whether they have really overcome the dynamics that led to those crimes, or whether those structures are still operative today.

Germany is a country where we can study these dynamics in a very pronounced way. How to remember, and what to remember, are questions that dominate much of political, intellectual, and cultural life here. The last few weeks have been particularly vibrant in that regard.

27 January 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Soviet army. On that occasion, Franz-Walter Steinmeier was the first German president to speak at the Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem in Israel, and together with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin he visited the Moses Mendelssohn Jewish high school in Berlin. On 29 January, Rivlin spoke at the German parliament about “friendship and true partnership” between Germany and Israel—which further enhanced the moral pressure on the German government to actively support Israel, as journalists commented.

Two weeks later, 13–15 February marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, when the US and UK air forces killed about 25,000 people when they carpet-bombed the city at the end of World War II. This was another sensitive speech for Steinmeier: “Let’s work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering,” he said in the presence of the UK’s Prince Edward, trying to strike a balance that would also send a message to the far-right AfD party, which has registered enormous successes in elections and political visibility recently.

No doubt, the Holocaust and the long shadow of anti-Semitism are still very present in German political and cultural discourse today. This discourse has created many knee-jerk reactions across the political spectrum. And it has created imbalances in remembering and forgetting: While Germany has often been praised for the open and self-critical way it has acknowledged its responsibility for the Holocaust, another chapter of German history has gone almost unnoticed—German colonialism and the genocide in German Southwest Africa, what is today Namibia. Approximately 80,000 Herero and Nama people were killed by the so-called “protective troops” or died in concentration camps in the years after what the Herero refer to as the ovita yOhamakari (the so-called Battle of Waterberg) in 1904. Historians have pointed out that this was the first genocide of the twentieth century. Negotiations between the Namibian government, the Herero and Nama people, and the German government have been ongoing since 2004, but apart from general acknowledgments of the atrocities on the German side, these haven’t led to a settlement that would also include concrete measures, such as paying reparations. Hence, Herero and Nama representatives filed a lawsuit against Germany at a district court in New York in 2017. In March 2019, a New York judge ruled that the principle of sovereign immunity made the case inadmissible. The plaintiffs are appealing, and political relations have become tense over the last year.

Then there is the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, in what is now (mainly) Tanzania, in which hundreds of thousands of people died. Some of the victims’ skulls were brought back to Germany, where researchers examined their “racial purity” and tried to prove racial hierarchies—thirty years before the National Socialists did the same in their concentration camps. As Luisa Beck explains, 71 skulls have been returned to Namibia over the past decade as part of Germany’s acknowledgment of its responsibility. But hundreds more skulls from southwest and east Africa still remain in storage in museums and hospitals in Berlin. Over the last few weeks, Tanzania has also urged reparation and concrete action as an acknowledgment of German colonial crimes. Activists such as Mnyaka Sururu Mboro have come to Berlin to claim the skull of Mangi Meli, who is still venerated by the Chagga in Tanzania, and to argue for a public monument to the victims of colonialism and enslavement.

The Holocaust and the Herero and Nama genocides are entangled in many ways. As Andreas Eckert from the Humboldt University in Berlin explains, the strong focus on the German atrocities during World War II has overshadowed the awareness of German colonial crimes: “Colonial racism and the exploitation of Africa […] were issues which ‘the others’ had to ‘deal with’. In the area of development cooperation, the Federal Republic of Germany presented itself as a partner free of any such burdens—and one whose politics were devoid of any neocolonial interests.” This won’t work anymore. Eckert rightly points to the ongoing discussions about renaming streets in Berlin that bear the names of German colonial protagonists, about the planned Humboldt Forum in Berlin—which has been criticized for its overly strong focus on the Germany of “poets and thinkers,” thus sidelining Germany’s colonial past—and a new awareness of this chapter in German schools.

There is no “right” way to remember the past, and the moral-religious category of “guilt” is not helpful in political processes. We also have to avoid playing one group of victims off against another, or one crime against another. What we do need, though, is full recognition and accountability. In a time of heightened awareness of the enduring presence of racism and colonial attitudes in Germany—see, for instance, Ai Weiwei’s angry comments on the topic, or the debate about the use of the N-word in German politics—it is important to critically assess our ways of remembering and forgetting. It is time for clear statements of acknowledgment, for a visible remembrance of German colonial crimes in public spaces in Berlin, and, yes, for financial and economic reparations to the Herero, Nama, Chagga, and other victims of German colonial exploitation. We need reparations because they go beyond remembering; they are an active, material engagement with the past and a clear message for the present.

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Kocku von Stuckrad is one of the co-founders and co-directors of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge. As a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), he works on the cultural history of religion, science, and philosophy in Europe. His new (German) book is The Soul in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History. He lives in Berlin.


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Photo credit: Four German soldiers in a Camel-Schutztruppe patrol, 1906. Photo by Walther Dobbertin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DSWA0095 / Walther Dobbertin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.


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