Dekolonial Erinnern … für postkoloniale Beziehungsethik
Decolonial memories … for postcolonial relational ethics

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German Colonial Restitution Monitor

Abdulrazak Gurnah and German Colonialism: Conference Report

Thomas Fues (18 March 2024)

Even though German colonialism in East Africa is a key theme in his writings, award of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah came as a surprise to everybody in Germany. In response to the news, Deutschlandradio reported that the rights to Gurnah’s books were not held by a single German publisher at the time. There were only antiquarian editions available which quickly sold out. A major reason for the disregard of the author until then was, undoubtedly, the lack of Germans‘ interest in their colonial history, particularly with regard to Tanzania.

Three years later, it’s time to ask what effect the award has had on Germany’s efforts to come to terms with the dark sides of its past in East Africa. There are indications that Gurnah’s novels may have a long-term impact in the country of the perpetrators. One notable consequence, for example, was the invitation by the German Literature Archive in 2023 to deliver the prestigious annual Marbach Schiller Speech.

Berlin Conference

In another development, the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin hosted an academic conference on „Abdulrazak Gurnah and German colonialism“, 14 March 2024, organised by Kai Wiegandt, professor of literature at the Akademie, and Lukas Lammers, professor at Humboldt University Berlin. The event was set up to explore „trauma, genocide, ambitions of ‚recolonization‘ by Nazi Germany and postwar migration“ associated with German colonial violence. And to focus attention on the perspectives of „people whose versions of events have frequently been discredited, drowned out, or ignored“.

This approach to Gurnah is shared by Michelle Moyd, professor of history at Michigan State University, in a recent online lecture. She sees an important achievement of his novels in decentring European narratives. Thus echoing the observation by renowned British author Aminatta Forna:

„Gurnah reverses the literary gaze, viewing the colonizer from the perspective of the colonized. As in (Joseph) Conrad, the true heart of darkness is not Africa but Europe.“

The double trauma of colonialism and the First World War is a present-day reality in East Africa. (The territory of Deutsch-Ostafrika/German East Africa included today’s Tanzania (without Zanzibar), Rwanda and Burundi.) In the above-mentioned Schiller Speech, Gurnah refers to the „myth of German implacability and cruelty“ and directly confronts his German audience:

„It is indeed regrettable that the tragedies inflicted on the people of East Africa as a result of European rivalries are belittled and forgotten, and the historical responsibility for these events is not accepted. I do believe that accepting responsibility for wrongs is the first step towards both understanding and reconciliation.“

First World War

Much attention at the conference was focussed on Gurnah’s latest novel „Afterlives“ (published in 2020), which is set in East Africa during the First World War. European rivalries were fought out there during the whole length of the war, from 1914 to 1918, while German troops had quickly surrendered in other colonies: Togo in August 1914, Deutsch-Südwestafrika in July 1915, Cameroon in January 1916. Reduced to a small force of combatants employing guerilla tactics, German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck finally acknowledged defeat two weeks after the war had ended in Europe (November 1918).

According to estimates by the German Historical Museum, up to 500.000 African people had perished during the War in East Africa, mostly civilians and porters. A British academic publication speaks of around 530.000 Africans who lost their lives in East Africa as a direct result of the War. To this, the deaths would have to be added which were caused by the

devastating ‚Spanish‘ influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which killed nearly 2 percent of Africa’s population within six months.“

On his return to Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck was received as a hero, seen as the only German commander undefeated in the field. Based on such admiration, his funeral in the year 1964 (!) was turned into an official state function, graced by the eulogy of the then German Minister of Defense, Kai-Uwe von Hassel (born in Deutsch-Ostafrika 1913 as son of a schutztruppe captain).

Multidirectional memory and implication

Central themes at the conference were the concepts of multidirectional memory and implication in Gurnah’s works, drawing on the authoritative contributions by Michael Rothberg. „Afterlives“ tells the story of a former African askari who is murdered in a German concentration camp during the national-socialist period, connecting two strands of collective suffering and trauma. Without implying linear continuities, colonialism and the Holocaust may appear as intersecting representations of Germany’s specific evil character in the novel. Memories of such horrendous crimes, as Michael Rothberg tells us, should not be understood as competitive („zero-sum game“), but rather as resources for mourning together, mutual solidarity and joint learning.

In addition, the novels „Paradise“ and „Afterlives“ can also be interpreted as narratives of implication, overcoming the binary of perpetrator/victim. In particular, it is the literary figure of the askari used by Gurnah who represents complex layers of identity. He acts as an instrument of German imperialism and becomes an agent of boundless violence against fellow Africans. While he enjoys a privileged social status within the colonial power structure, he can never break out of the existential state of inferiority imposed by colonial domination and the concept of White supremacy.

Memory studies in Tanzania

In Germany, you can often hear the opinion that people in Tanzania are not keen to address colonial legacies associated with German rule. This viewpoint is refuted by Gurnah’s novels and his public statements. The German prejudice also does not do justice to the fact that local communities carry the memories of past injustices from one generation to the next. The experience of loss is particularly painful for those whose ancestors‘ remains were translocated to Germany to be abused for pseudo-scientific „race“ theories.

Ongoing efforts to address colonial history in Tanzania are often supported by academic memory studies such as the ground-breaking book by Reginald Kirey, lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. Nancy Rushohora, professor at the same university, has extensively worked on the anticolonial Majimaji resistance in Southern Tanzania. Halima Geuya, an aspiring Tanzanian author, presently works on a biography of Li’ti Kidanka from Central Tanzania, known as queen of bees in oral tradition. She was a priestess and warlord who organized her people of the Nyaturu tribe to fight against the German invasion during the years 1901 to 1904.

A new Tanzanian-German documentary on the persisting traumas of German colonialism in East Africa was launched at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. „The Empty Grave“ looks at colonial destruction and dispossession through the eyes of descendants in Tanzania who long for the return of their ancestral remains from Germany.

German apologies

In recent months, the stance of Germany’s government on the colonial past in East Africa has shifted remarkably. On his visit to the Majimaji memorial site Songea in early November 2023, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked for forgiveness for German atrocities. Shortly later participating in a ceremony for missing Chagga ancestors in Moshi, State Minister Katja Keul of the Foreign Office, linked the official request for apology with a personal relevation. As a descendant of the notorious colonizer Carl Peters, she personally asked for forgiveness in the name of her family.

Reactions to official German apologies in Tanzania have been mixed. Nancy Rushohora, an internationally recognized scholar on the Majimaji war, articulated a highly critical response to President Steinmeier’s apology:

„Apology not accepted. The President’s apology was much more to the German activists and public than it was to the people of Tanzania. The genocide that the Germans committed during the Majimaji is representative of the pain, humiliation and trauma that all Tanzanian communities are facing individually and as communities. Remedying from this pain requires genuine intent to correct the wrongs of the past. An accurate measure of the willingness to repatriate the human remains and cultural objects looted from Tanzania would have been the President’s restitution of what has already been identified. This would have brought meaning to collaborations and walking together in the path of truth and reconciliation. With Germany still holding the human remains, cultural objects and knowledge belonging to Tanzania, colonial incapacitation is perpetuated. Recently, scholars and experts in Germany have joined in efforts to expose the German past and whereabouts of human remains through provenance research. The question is, neither repatriation nor reparation has been the outcome. Why not walk the talk and stop talking the talk?“

Tanzanian-German collaboration

This sceptical view indicates that the process of jointly addressing the entangled colonial history is still at the very beginning. Both ministries of foreign affairs have agreed to set up a

„joint team to commence dialogue on Germany’s colonial legacy in Tanzania, including the return of remains and artifacts“ (Tanzania’s Foreign Minister January Makamba on 23 January 2024).

The Tanzanian government has established an interministerial committee in order to design a national restitution strategy and to coordinate all concerned parties on their side. On its part, the German government still has to work on an effective restitution governance which is capable of dealing with the growing demands from former colonies. On both sides, it is not clear how civil society and academia will be included in the upcoming negotiations. It is evident that non-state actors could make significant contributions to collaborative efforts if they are adequately resourced and their autonomy is respected.