Awakened from colonial amnesia? Germany after 2004

by Reinhart Kössler (July 2006)


1. Introduction: Colonial amnesia after World War II

2. Looking back: German nationalism, colonial fantasies and experience

3. A limited awakening: the centenary of colonial genocide in Namibia, 2004

4. The coming of a colonial Historikerstreit?

5. References

siehe auch/see also:

Henning Melber:

In the Shadow of Genocide - German-Namibian Reconciliation a Century Later

Henning Melber: Reparationsforderungen bleiben aktuell - Berliner Seminar leistet Mittlerdienste

[Zur Debatte um Entschädigung und Entschuldigung wegen deutscher Kolonialverbrechen in Namibia]




1. Introduction: Colonial amnesia after World War II

At a meeting on the African Renaissance initiative in Berlin on 4 April 2001, the Green Bundestag Deputy Hans-Christian Ströbele, generally known for his left-leaning views, in his capacity as his party’s leader in the Bundestag Committee for Economic Cooperation and Development, noted that “Germany has been driven out of colonialisation early on, … Germany can now act in an unencumbered way and take over the role of avantgarde’ (qu. from Kössler & Melber 2004: 37) in Africa. This episode highlights the extremely marginalized role the German colonial past played during recent decades certainly in the public mind, but also in debates even among a generally informed and critical section of the public. Nevertheless, both German national identity and the history of the German nation state have been deeply intertwined with colonial fantasies and ventures (cf. Ames et al. 2005). In this senses, if the idea that “Germany once was an imperialist country,” may “appear almost out of the way to Germans today” (van Laak 2005: 9), this amounts to colonial amnesia.

As I hope to demonstrate, there are reasons for this situation, and moreover it may have been changing. For an understanding of the relative insignificance of the colonial past in the German public mind, it will be necessary first to recall not only the reality of German colonialism, but also the role projected and real colonialism have played particularly with regard to German nationalism. In the following section, I trace a chain of events that may indicate a break with the silence about the colonial past, namely the commemoration of the centenary of genocide committed by German colonial troops in Namibia in 1904. 2004 saw a significant shift in government policy with respect to the acknowledgment of this state mass crime, and also a certain amount of mobilisation and debate within civil society. This new publicity of the colonial past is also reflected recently in scholarly and to some extent popular debate that has taken up not only the issue of genocide but generally, in response to new revisionist tendency, the meaning of colonialism as such. It may also be observed at the outset that given the overriding importance of the genocide issue connected with Namibia, the argument will focus particularly on this country. An additional reason for this is the small but vociferous German speaking minority in that country which clearly sets it off from other former German colonies also in terms of –albeit limited – public attention.

2. Looking back: German nationalism, colonial fantasies and experience

From its inception, German nationalism pursued colonial projects. While the colonies eventually acquired fell far short of such reveries, colonial practice again impacted on the imagery above all of German nationalists, in extolling not only war, but criminal warfare and contributing towards a routinisation and legitimation of racist discrimination.

The quest for a “German India” and for territories which might absorb the huge number of emigrants that troubled nationalists became a virtual “obsession” (Naranch 2005: 25) from the early 19 th century (cf. van Laak 2005: 33-7). As the eminent theoretician of national economic reconstruction, Friedrich List, had stressed, the current notion of a viable nation state as a matter of course included the possession of colonies as areas for emigration, as suppliers of raw materials and as markets (cf. List 1950: 268-9; cf. also Hobsbawm 1992: 23-45). Obviously, all these projects, some of them rather bizarre, such as the plan of Hamburg burghers to establish an ‘Antipode Colony’ on the Chatham Islands to the Northeast of New Zealand, (cf. Fenske 1991), came to naught. After the unification of Germany by “blood and iron,” Bismarck at first rejected a colonial option (cf. van Laak 2005: 53). The persistent colonial lobby prevailed, when in the context of the Berlin Africa Conference in 1884, Germany joined the land grabbing spree and secured in quick succession four territories in Africa – German South West Africa (Namibia), German East Africa (continental Tanzania plus Rwanda and Burundi), Cameroon and Togo. In addition, German colonies were established in New Guinea and the islands north of it, in Samoa, and in Tsingtao, China. However, these acquisitions never obliterated the more important thrusts of German expansionism was directed towards informal empire in the Near East and above all, settlement in Eastern Europe (cf. ib.: 53-60).

A few salient, mainly military events in the period of actual German colonialism – merely three decades – proved of longer-term importance. Participation in the global campaign to suppress the Ihetuan (“Boxer”) rising in China occasioned the ill famed send-off address by Emperor William II to departing troops when he called upon them to take care that the German name be as fearfully remembered in China as that of the Huns was in Europe (see speech). Moreover, the China campaign was part of a process in which German military personnel evolved and perfected a tactics of fighting “by sector,” systematic scorched earth warfare that had been employed in suppressing the Wahehe rising in East Africa (Tanzania) during the 1890s (cf. Gewald 2005: 24-5).

Arguably the central single event – and certainly the most controversial and commented – of the period of German colonialism occurred when the same kind of warfare was employed in Namibia to terminate the Herero-German war that had begun in January 1904. After initial success, the Herero converged around the Waterberg mountain, followed by a beefed-up German expeditionary corps under the command of the newly arrived General Lothar von Trotha. The battle of Ohamakari on 11 August, 1904 was inconclusive, not the decisive battle German military doctrine called for after the image of Sedan in 1870 (cf. Hull 2003). Von Trotha ordered his troops to pursue the Herero, who were retreating, men, women and children along with their cattle herds, eastwards into the waterless Omaheke steppe. While some could make their way to British territory in present-day Botswana or to the Northern parts of Namibia then not under effective colonial rule, tens of thousands perished miserably from thirst. Only some seven weeks later did von Trotha issue his infamous “extermination proclamation” which stated that the Herero were no longer German subjects and had to leave the country, else they would be shot, armed or unarmed (cf. Pool 1991: 272). Also from further evidence such as von Trotha’s diary (cf. ib.: 272-4), the intention to annihilate the Herero can hardly be doubted. Indeed, this aim was endorsed by Chief of Staff von Schlieffen when evaluating the situation in the colony (cf. Drechsler 1984: 166). In terms of the UN Genocide convention of 1948, such intention to annihilate a group is the decisive criterion for such a mass crime (see UN-Convention). After von Trotha’s orders had been repealed, the annihilation strategy was pursued further by a regime of concentration camps where men, women and children were subjected to “annihilation by neglect” (Zimmerer 2003: 63). Prisoners in the Nama-German war that began in October 1904 in addition were subject to deportation to Togo and Cameroon (cf. Hillebrecht 2003, Kössler 2006: 181-2). In this way, the ground was also cleared for white settlers, and even thought their numbers were comparatively small, Namibia’s importance within the context of German colonialism derives mainly from the German speaking community still living in the country.

Large-scale atrocities were perpetrated in other German colonies as well. Thus, the Maji Maji war (1905-07) which covered the entire south of today’s continental Tanzania, claimed up to 300.000 lives (cf. Becker & Beez 2005) and methods of exploitation in Cameroon were comparable to the notorious conditions in the Congo Free State (cf. Marx 2004: 135). However, the wars of 1904-08 in Namibia stand out by their explicit strategy of genocide. Further, this was one of the few colonial wars fought predominantly by metropolitan troops (cf. Mann 2003: 25-6). Its impact on the metropolis was therefore bound to exceed that of wars where troops were recruited regionally.

Indeed, the campaigns in Namibia had a far reaching impact on metropolitan Germany. The “toll of lives” the war in Namibia had demanded “for the first time brought real public attention to the colonies” in Germany (van Laak 2003: 85). Against parliamentary objections to the war, Chancellor von Bülow called snap elections late in 1906 and engineered a major political realignment on the “patriotic” theme on the colonial war. The campaign for these “Hottentot Elections” was marked by an unprecedented mobilisation of right-wing and chauvinist civil society (cf. Crothers 1968; Sobich 2004). An aggressive propaganda extolled the exploits of the German troops in Namibia, with publications making no efforts to hide even gruesome details and revelling in the extermination of Herero in the waterless steppe. In view later of colonial amnesia, this aggressive popularisation drive is particularly remarkable. A novel recounting the adventures of a young military recruit in “South-West” (Frenssen 2002) was one of the most widely circulated youth books, sold 433,000 by 1945 and became a set work at schools in 1908 (cf. Pakendorf 1987: 176). Remarkably, the South African Blue Book later drew heavily on Frenssen’s novel to proof that Germany disqualified as a coloniser (cf. Silvester & Gewald 2003: 111-114). Thus, a literary text, considered fit to supply arguments that were so prejudicious to German colonial behaviour, would for roughly four decades serve as a routine reading for German youths! Surely, this contributed considerably to the inculcation of race framing (cf. Grosse 2005) and to banalising the idea of brute force against the racialised other.

It is well-known that in economic terms, the German colonial venture was a disaster, even though “private hands” profiteered heavily at a huge cost to the public, as opponents lamented as a matter of routine (cf. van Laak 2005: 86), quite in keeping with indictments on the inherent parasitism of imperialist policy (cf. Hobson 1965: chpt. 4). Along with the short duration of Germany’s actual role as a colonial power, this may well account for the predominantly ideological role colonialism played in Germany. As noted, fantasies about colonies had played a role in German nationalism before 1870; similarly, the image of the lost colonial empire, making Germany “a postcolonial nation in a still-colonial world” (Klotz 2005: 141), only aggravated the hurt to national narcissism and resentment engendered by what was perceived on the German Right as discriminatory treatment by the Versailles dispensation.

Its particular colonial experience also sets off Germany from other erstwhile colonial powers today, since in contradistinction to its Western European neighbours, long-distance immigration into Germany is not linked to the colonial past. The bulk of migrant communities present today in Germany by and large hail from the Mediterranean, in particular from Turkey, and from Eastern Europe. Black Germans would rather seldom have to look for roots in Germany’s colonial past. As a public issue, the “Rhineland Bastards,” stemming from unions between French occupying soldiers drawn from Africa and German women during the 1920s were much more important as a focal point of racist hysteria (cf. Campt et al. 1998: 208-214; Klotz 2005: 141-2). Similarly, the presence of blacks in occupation forces after World War II had a considerable impact, also when Black Germans took a more assertive line later on (cf. Campt et al. 1998: 223-6). In this way, a post-colonial presence making claim to recognition of past wrong in Germany today is rather negligible. As far as demands are raised to come to terms with the colonial past, they come from other quarters. Merely considering the numerical relationship, no large audience can reasonably be expected for these concerns. Only Namibia has always drawn more public attention, not least on account of its German speaking community. Besides the historic scandal of colonial genocide, this may account for the greater public impact which the historical entanglement with Namibia has experienced in Germany when compared to her other former colonies.

3. A limited awakening: the centenary of colonial genocide in Namibia, 2004

As Ernest Renan observed more than 120 years ago, nations are constituted by having in common not least that “all have forgotten” certain things, such as the night of St Bartholomew or the massacres in the Midi in the 13th century (1882: chpt. 1). Today, and with special reference to Germany, this has to be modified in the sense that common remembrance, and above all negotiation – and at times, contention – about its contents certainly is essential for the making of a national self-image; however, in post-World War II Germany, the cipher of Auschwitz has become a central and indispensable point of reference for any credible self-image, even in official forms of commemoration, such as the days of liberation of the most well-known concentration camps or the recently unveiled holocaust memorial almost adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. While the drawing of comparisons and parallels here is fraught with grave ethical as well as methodological problems, German memorial practice – that emerged from a long and controversial process over some 60 years – has been commended as exemplary in contrast to official attitudes, e.g. taken by Japan in relation to the Pacific War or by Turkey in relation to the genocide against Armenians in 1915. Still, among the problems involved with such practice remains its high degree of selectivity. This applies not least to the fact that remembrance of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany obscures reference to German colonial practice, including in particular the first genocide of the 20 th century committed by the German military in Namibia. A closer look at such selective processes leads into the intricate and frequently dilemmatic problems of the “competition of victims” (concurrence des victims; Chaumont 1997), which barely can be mentioned here.

Above all, such a closer look reveals the way those who stand for the perpetrators play at that competition. This addresses the official policy of the German government. From its inception in 1949, the (West) German state, in contradistinction to its Eastern counterpart (it is beyond the scope of this article to address here the East German experience, cf. Schleicher & Schleicher 1998), has always insisted upon its legal position as the successor of the Reich. Regardless of constructs about collective guilt that rather tend to divert from the problem (cf. Frei 2005), the claim to succession to a legal position should also include responsibility for the liabilities. It is not by accident, therefore, that the burgeoning debate about the colonial past in Germany today focuses on the issue of genocide. The claims raised and the court cases filed in the names of Herero claimants have almost routinely made explicit reference to the Holocaust (cf. Böhlke-Itzen 2003). In this way, the Herero court case inevitably and by repeated reference to the indemnification of Jewish victims by the German state inserted itself into victim competition.

Herero-German Foto: R. Koessler

To be sure, this was not a complete novelty. The aforementioned Blue Book­ served as a point of reference precisely to contest the idea that German colonialism had stood out by its particular brutality and ruthlessness. More specifically, Hannah Arendt (1976: chpt. 7) had linked the genocide perpetrated against Herero and other Namibians to the trajectory which culminated in the Holocaust some forty years later. Similar lines are drawn in two novels by Thomas Pynchon (2000 a,b; cf. Selmeci & Henrichsen 1995). It may also be noted that the Anti-Apartheid and solidarity movement of the 1970s and 1980s had variously made reference to this connection, even though in the form of local and largely unsuccessful appeals. Thus, in 1985 a group in Münster demanded, unsuccessfully, to supplement the inscription of a military memorial to point to the honoured regiment’s involvement in the genocidal campaign in Namibia (cf. Zeller 2000: 218). However, these were no serious challenges to official policy, nor were these issues given centre stage by the broad anti-apartheid movement (cf. Kössler & Melber 2001: 120-1).

Arguably, the dynamism which the whole issue has gained since the mid-1990s may be related, to a considerable extent, to the sustained campaigning, including court action in the USA, by the group around Herero Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako. This came after consecutive rebuffs by the visiting German Chancellor in 1995 and the President in 1997 (cf. Paech 2003: 12). To this may be added a certain amount of pressure on the international scene, most notably at the World Conference against Racism in Durban in August 2001(cf. Böhlke-Itzen 2004: 103). One indication that such pressure was mounting was the reference by Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer, while visiting Namibia in October 2003, to “our historical responsibility”; yet he stressed at the same time that “we are not hostages to history” and that “therefore, there will be no apology with relevance for compensation” (Allgemeine Zeitung, Windhoek 30.10.2003). In thus denying any legal obligation, while allocating to Namibia a generous amount of development aid, Fischer was entirely consistent with the stance of successive German governments, regardless of their party-political hue. Still, the centennial year of the colonial genocide in 2004 did bring a appreciable, if surprising, shift in official policy.

During the run-up of the centenary, there had been a considerable amount of activity, and individuals, concerned academics as well as small surviving groups of the broad anti-apartheid movement certainly saw a need to focus these activities on the issue of genocide and on the demand for an appropriate apology, including material consequences (see esp. Zimmerer & Zeller 2003). Around January 11, the centenary of the beginning of the Herero-German war, most of the national dailies in Germany carried extensive features. In a longer time perspective, there were a considerable number of events and activities to commemorate the centennial. They may be seen as the fruit of extensive preparatory work and lasted well into 2005 (cf. Zeller 2005: 176-188). This series of events was directed mainly towards a limited and committed audience. Thus, it included a number of scholarly conferences, adult education initiatives and information venues, television features and exhibitions of various shapes and sizes. Civil society actors were present mainly in the form of church activities and of some local groups who pursued initiatives to change street names (like “Von-Trotha-Strasse” in Munich) or the meaning of memorials by adding elements commemorating the colonial genocide. There was little co-ordination between the different initiatives. The scope of their activities was fairly wide. At one pole, a well-funded and quasi-official exhibition on Namibian and German “shared history,” opened on 7 March 2004 in Cologne and later moved to the German Historical Museum in central Berlin, presented a view that focused more on the relationship of Black and German speaking Namibians than on the actual relationship between Namibia and Germany (Förster et al. 2004, published for the occasion, does not fully reflect this). The United Evangelical Mission (UEM), Wuppertal which incorporates the main historical missionary society in southern and central Namibia produced a moving exhibition which was put up by local congregations and later also shown in Namibia. At the launch, Namibian Bishop Zephania Kameeta, in his capacity as UEM Moderator, called for a “Marshall Plan” for Namibia (cf. Zeller 2005: 177) and thus stressed a linkage between commemoration and the need for material change in the present.

The demand for the German government to recognize the genocide perpetrated against Herero, Nama, Damara and San in Namibia during the colonial wars in 1904-1908 became the central political issue at all these occasions. When then Deputy Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia, Michael Vesper of the Green Party at the opening of the Cologne Exhibition joined the demand for an apology (my own observation on the occasion, 7 March 2004), he was the first representative of the ruling Red-Green coalition publicly to do so. With the participation of the present writer, a series of public lectures in Bochum (Ruhr Area) was taken as a launching pad for a “Bochum Appeal” which called on the government to finally live up to its historic responsibility and subsequently was signed by a number of local celebrities and won some nationwide circulation.

Meanwhile, German policy in Namibia obviously strove to address the need for commemoration when the Ambassador participated in various centennial events, while studiously avoiding any hint of an apology. As a major initiative, a Cultural and Tourist Centre near Okakarara in close vicinity of the Waterberg was given long-term funding (see Invitation of the German Embassy). The uneasy connection between these activities and debate in Germany became apparent when on 17 June 2004 the Bundestag passed a resolution that, while reaffirming special commitment to Namibia in general terms, skirted the vital issue of apologising for the genocide and merely showed regret for the victims. Not only was this considered a slap in the face by leading Herero (cf. Kössler 2004); it transpired that in lengthy committee deliberations, the Foreign Office had insisted to have the text watered down, pointing to the risk of incurring liabilities in compensation and claiming that the genocide and its consequences merely were “alleged facts” and “contentious conclusions of some historians” (die tageszeitung, 10.6.2004). The latter argument distorted the debate (see below) and took its cue from a group of right-wing revisionist authors (cf. Böhlke-Itzen 2003: 61-81).

It was therefore with considerable apprehension that observers approached the central date, the commemoration of the battle of the Waterberg (in Otjiherero: Ohamakari). In an emotional speech the German Minister of Development and Economic Cooperation, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul (social democrat) declared that “We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time. And so, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we share, I ask you to forgive us our trespasses.” (see speech). This was a clear departure from earlier official attitude which – as the Fischer quote above demonstrates – had carefully avoided any formula that might acknowledge guilt. Initially, some conservative deputies discounted the Minister’s intervention as a potentially “costly emotional outbreak” and feared her use of the term “genocide” might damage the German position in the U.S. court cases (Frankfurter Rundschau , 20.8.2004). Yet by and large, Wieczorek-Zeul’s speech was accepted in Germany as a landmark, although its news value got nowhere near the excitement it stimulated in Namibia. When in November 2005 the new grand coalition government took office, Wieczorek-Zeul retained her post and there was no appreciable shift in policy.


Foto (R. Koessler): At the commemoration 2004 in Ohamakari, Namibia

This stance, however, was clearly predicated on the supposition that the quasi-official apology did not entail any obligation to compensate the posterity of the victims. Instead, the idea of a reconciliation process was floated that would not refer to anything like compensation or reparation. Its formal contours became visible at a conference in November 2004 in Bremen, with the participation of Herero dignitaries and German officials. Before the conference even had started, the local newspaper carried an interview with Wieczorek-Zeul where she announced a reconciliation initiative with Bremen’s Mayor as its chairman (Weser-Kurier, 19.11.2004). This one-sided approach to an extremely sensitive problematic was replicated roughly half a year later when the Minister, on occasion of being honoured, together with Bishop Zephania Kameeta, with a prize for her reconciliation work, elaborated on her reconciliation initiative and announced that € 20 Mio. would be disbursed over a period of ten years to support the communities in Namibia that had suffered from “what today is rightly termed genocide.” (see speech by Minister Wieczorek-Zeul). Besides the obvious discrepancy between the € 2 billion demanded in the court cases against the German government and private firms and this sum, a main objection by a number of spokespersons was that the announcement had been made without due consultation with the various stakeholders (see e.g. Namibian , 27.5. 2005). In late 2005, the initiative reached an impasse, ground between countervailing interests of the Namibian government and regional communities, and inept handling on the German side (cf. Zeller 2005b). This failure to set into motion a meaningful process of reconciliation also revealed problems with Wieczorek-Zeul’s original approach: Her speech had been carefully worded not to present holds for legal argument, and she had acted in the face of dissent even within the Cabinet. This spoke to her personal courage, but also entailed restrictions for her further action. Thus, the € 20 Mio. announcement came within days after Chancellor Schröder had declared snap elections – she had to countenance losing office within months and may have decided to do what was possible in the situation. - However, herself cast representing the perpetrators and without proper attention to the vital sentiments and wishes of those who stand on the victim’s side in this process this approach was not prospitious to reconciliation (on the problematic: E.G. Johan Galtung, After Violence: 3R, Reconstruction, Reconciliation, Resolution Coping with Visible and Invisible Effects of War and Violence, pdf-text).

Again, the shortcomings in the execution of such a policy seem to be stand in a kind of reciprocal action with the public as well as academic discourse on the past. In this field, a long-simmering controversy appeared to come into the open around the turn of 2005/06. Apparently, renewed interest in the colonial past is interlinked closely with efforts to create a more palatable image of German colonialism than is conveyed by the remembrance of genocide and other forms of savage repression and exploitation.

4. The coming of a colonial Historikerstreit?

Commemorative activities in 2004 were linked inextricably to an ongoing controversy over the meaning of what had happened in Namibia 100 years before. This debate is of rather long standing and has been shaped seminally by two studies of the 1960s, when a West and an East German historian arrived at very similar conclusions, at least where genocide or “growing totalitarianism” in Namibia after the wars are concerned (Bley 1996: 223-6; cf. Drechsler 1984). As has been hinted already, in particular the notion of genocide has repeatedly evinced opposition from revisionist quarters, including a little cottage industry in Namibia (cf. e.g. Schneider-Waterberg 2005). It would be beyond the limits of this paper to follow this up in any detail. Still, these views are quite influential, given the argumentation by the Foreign Office (supra), or the recent insight that the websites on colonial history most popular also with German youths seem to be those run by hobby historians of a revisionist bent (Frankfurter Rundschau, 3.4.2006). This attitude is also reflected in campaigns of letters to the editor in the German language press in Namibia but also occasionally in respectable German dailies. Here, a linkage occurs between the denial of colonial genocide and the call for a ‘final stroke’ (Schlussstrich) under the Holocaust which should no longer haunt the German mind – if not its outright denial (For a review of the arguments mentioned, Böhlke-Itzen 2004: 59-98 and Marx 2005: 144—8, also for the following). The talk of and call for a ‘final stroke’ has consistently been an important trope within (West) German debates and memory practice referring to Nazism since the 1950s (cf. Frei 2005), and therefore forms an important link for revisionist dealings both with the Namibian genocide and the Holocaust. On the other hand, in more serious academic debate on the Namibian genocide, the “German historical guild” has, as one proponent put it, entered a debate about the relationship between “colonial genocide and Holocaust” (Kundrus 2004: 33). That is, there is broad consensus in evaluating the strategy of the German Schutztruppe in Namibia as genocidal, and other colonial war as at least bordering such a mass crime. Within a German context, this immediately raises the question as to which relationship exists between these state-sponsored atrocities and the Holocaust which inevitably forms the central point of reference of any conception of 20 th century German history and public memory that related to it.

In some respects at least, such considerations move beyond the framework of victim competition, even though the issue of respect for the victims remains linked intimately with any conceptual and above all, comparative debate. An important departure has been Jürgen Zimmerer’s (2001, 2003, 2004) provocative analysis which pointed to the logic of the settlement project that for all divergences strings together the colonial war and the strategy of military conquest and genocide pursued by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe during World War II. Certainly, this also shows the sheer complexity of the mass crimes referred to by the chiffre of Holocaust, while important differences exist between the deportation and annihilation of the Western Jewry, the extermination of Sinti and Roma, or the attempts to clear lands for German settlement by killing off or deporting the people who lived there – Jews, but Poles or Ukrainians as well. The main objections raised against this innovative view concerned the difficulty of establishing clear lines of causation between what happened to “the Hereros” on the one hand and the “Holocaust” on the other (Kundrus 2005). While this may be difficult to operationalise and therefore, to transform into controlled argument, it has been suggested from broadly similar positions that a framing of social conditions in racial terms, which is closely linked to colonial experience and imagination, has been instrumental in spreading and banalising racism and anti-semitism in early 20 th century Germany (cf. Grosse 2005). In this way, issues of method take on decisive importance and indeed, political hue. For instance, allegations that Zimmerer conflated concentration camps in Namibia with those of Nazi Germany, stand against his differentiation of “extermination by illness and neglect” in the former case (Zimmerer 2001: 55) in clear contrast to industrialized mass murder in Auschwitz. Again, in keeping with this pervasive, and indeed inevtitable, preoccupation, “a virtually reflexive defence and insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust” (Marx 2005: 153) is quite common in this literature. In some arguments, singularity is motivated by a specific exterminatory thrust of Nazi anti-Semitism which according to this reasoning, in contradistinction to all other cases of genocide, was severed from any interest in the use of the victims as a work force (e.g. Scheit 2006). On the other hand, the actual obliteration of the colonial genocide from public memory that has persisted for decades after World War II is reflected in considerations about self-professed “solipsism” and “resentment” amongst researchers and educators concerned with the Holocaust to relate this to other state-sponsored mass crimes (Heyl 2005). Possibly overdrawn demands for proof on specific causal chains may act as immunising strategies in similar fashion. On the other hand, attention to actual warlike and repressive as well as exterminatory practice has been prevalent in this discussion, to the detriment of a closer look at the dynamics of public discourse in early 20 th century Germany and the effects which the virtual propagation of genocide in sustained mass campaigns mentioned above, or the routinisation of racist arguments have had towards framing public attitudes and apperception. Such long-sustained colonialist publicity campaigns might then be considered as contributing factors to what ended in the Holocaust (cf. Kössler 2005a). Undeniably, this points not least to a largely open research agenda for historians of Germany.

In public debate, the apparent consensus in acknowledging the importance of the colonial genocide by scholars and institutions mainly concerned with the Holocaust was a rather novel feature ushered in by 2004 (this was evident at a prominently placed international conference of genocide scholars in Berlin in January 2005 and also the instalment of the yearbook of the Fritz Bauer Institute, the Frankfurt based Study and Documentation Centre on the History and Impact of the Holocaust, cf. Wojak & Meinl 2004). The relevance of such discussions remains closely linked also to the political dimension mapped out above which coalesces in the issue of apology as demanded by various groups, not only for the Namibian genocide, but for colonial atrocities such as the Maji Maji War as well. Acknowledgement of responsibility then raises the further issue of adequate compensation (cf. Declaration of the Tanzania-Network to the handling of German colonial past, DEPO Newsletter, 14.4.2006; „Völkermord bleibt Völkermord – und verlangt Entschädigung,“ Informationsstelle Südliches Afrika/ISSA, Bonn, 26.5.2006).

Cutting across this trajectory, a fresh tendency towards a more or less openly revisionist interpretation of the German colonial past has become explicit, both in the political and academic fields. Significantly, a mediation with concerns articulated by German speaking Namibians is apparent here, one might even say that their existence forms a kind of focus for colonial apology in Germany (cf. Marx 2005: 143-4). This link is not a direct one, since many German Namibians, in particular those who refer to a ‘German’ tradition, renounce the decadence they see prevalent in Germany today (cf. Schmidt-Lauber 1998: 283-300), while others pointedly distance themselves from a responsibility which in their view is incumbent on Germany and not themselves as Namibians (Hans-Erik Staby: „Einige Gedanken zu dem Hererokrieg 1904-07 und seinen Folgen“ see text. Staby is Board Chairman of the Namibian-German Foundation, Windhoek). However, both attitudes dovetail with calls for a ‘final stroke’. On the other hand, recent moves by the Namibian government to speed up land reform have aroused immediate attention in Germany about the fate of German speaking settler farmers. Interaction therefore is by no means fortuitous.

Such interaction has become evident particularly in the latest foray to delegitimise the prevalent view on the colonial genocide. Here, the claim that this view rested on faulty source evaluation – which has not been substantiated (cf. Kössler 2005b) – was linked with a plea to introduce sources such as ‘inside’ views of soldiers’ diaries and take seriously the views of ‘settler historians’ (cf. Eckl 2004, 2005). All this has been taken up eagerly by revisionist quarters in Namibia (cf. Schneider-Waterberg 2005: 11-2).

While this may seem rather obscure, considerable relevance was added to such a tendency when Horst Gründer, one of the deans of colonial history in Germany, was blamed to have “reintegrate(d) colonialism as a positively valued epoch of national history,” on occasion of a prime time TV series (cf. the accompanying book, Graichen & Gründer 2005; Zimmerer 2005). In his response, Gründer (2005) alluded clearly to the recent attempts to discredit writing on the genocide. He further aligned himself to the revisionist cause at a public debate in Berlin about the Maji Maji war, also late in 2005, where, when pressed on the issue of genocide, declared that it was time to shed “whininess, larmoyency and the penitential robe”, since everywhere in history, modernisation also exacted social cost (Kristen 2005; Wegmann 2005). This corroborated strongly the impression that a major drive for re-evaluating colonialism was underway, also clearly alluding to the language of the ‘final stroke’.


Image from the mentioned Berlin Conference on the Maji Maji War in 2005, Foto: Heiko Wegmann

Such developments might presage a major controversy on the meaning of German colonialism within German 20th century history, and thereby, on the meaning of this history. Inevitably, this also entails the forms and contents of commemoration of the past, including state sponsored mass crimes. Again, this takes place at the crossroads of academic discussion, official public memory and civil society activities. While such topics will hardly ever by restricted purely to the academy, it is remarkable that in Germany a number of local groups have formed during 2004/05 that specifically work at sensitising the public to the local remains and memorials of German colonialism (deutschland-postkolonial.de; www.freiburg-postkolonial.de; www.dhm.de; www.hamburg-postkolonial.de). This innovative form of focus group has to be considered within the context of a society and state with a colonial past but without a post-colonial presence in the strict sense. In a way, these groups act as a modest substitute for such presence, while also addressing the form of alterity that is very much present in Germany, mainly as a consequence to large-scale migration during the last third of the 20 th century. As far as can be gauged at present, therefore, debate on the meaning of German colonial heritage for a vision of national history will also address the uneasy relationship of much of German official politics and society with the reality of an – still unacknowledged – immigration society.

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