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

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German Colonial Restitution Monitor

Culture Commissioner withdraws controversial paper

What place for colonialism in Germany’s memory culture?

In recent years, Germany has witnessed a polarized debate over the future of its memory culture. While one side insists on the centrality and singularity of the holocaust for the perpetrator society, others emphasize the need to embrace additional narratives of (state-organized) violence, trauma, suffering and resistance.

A few days ago, the conflict over an exclusive, hierarchical versus a multi-perspective understanding of remembrance reached its peak with a draft „framework concept“ presented by Germany’s Culture Commissioner, Claudia Roth. Without prior consultation, she proposed to include additional pillars of national remembrance alongside the two existing ones, the Nazi era and Communist dictatorship in East Germany. In reaction to massive protest, the Commissioner quickly withdrew her paper. It’s now unclear how the suggested new dimensions will be dealt with in the future.

Implementing the coalition agreement

In writing the draft, Commissioner Roth meant to implement the coalition agreement of the present German government which calls for an update of the memorial site concept. The document from the year 2008 focuses on institutions of remembrance for Nazi terror and Communist dictatorship in East Germany. Instead of incrementally revising the paper, Roth took a sweepingly different approach by presenting an ambitious „framework concept for memory culture“ which significantly broadens the thematic scope by including colonialism, migration experience and history of democracy. However, she neglected to explain what consequences this would have on financial allocations by her office. Thus fuelling fears that, without additional budgetary resources, funding for existing institutions would need to be reduced.

Massive criticism

The draft version of February 2024, which is confidential but can be accessed freely on the internet, immediately attracted massive criticism. The most damaging accusation was that the Commissioner was trivialising Nazi crimes and thereby promoting historical revisionism. Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, issued a sharp rebuke:

„Anyone in Germany today who believes that the commemoration and remembrance of the Shoah must be embedded in a larger framework is wrong.“

A broad coalition of memorial sites for Nazi terror and East German dictatorship joined the critical chorus and called for the withdrawal of the „framework concept“. As Elke Gryglewski, Managing Director of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation and Director of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, put it:

„To date, the memorial site concept has always included an analysis of the situation at the memorial sites and identified challenges. This framework concept was more of a wish list of what was to be done normatively.“

„Explosiveness of the draft“

The renowned historian Martin Sabrow (Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam) rejected the very essence of the „framework concept“:

„The real explosiveness of the draft presented arises from the fact that it aplombly crosses the line between state commemoration and public remembrance. However, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media has no remembrance-cultural mandate, but only one of remembrance policy. She is supposed to provide financial support to institutions of national importance, but she has no normative considerations or even initiatives to take on how society should remember its past.“

Statement of support

There have also been statements in support of the extended approach to memory culture, such as by Decolonize, a coalition of civil society organizations in Berlin:

„The discussion of National Socialism, the SED dictatorship and colonialism in a joint document does not represent a relativization of the Shoah, the Porajmos and the crimes of National Socialism as a whole, but corresponds to the scientific discourse.“

Agreement found

At a closed meeting with the management of memorial sites on 6 June 2024, Commissioner Roth agreed to withdraw her controversial paper. The participants decided to focus the update solely on remembrance institutions for the Nazi era and Communist East Germany. The additional topics suggested by the „framework concept“ will be discussed at a later stage with experts and civil society representatives.

Agreement condemned

While supporting the original focus of the „draft concept“, Jürgen Zimmerer, a critical historian at Hamburg University, condemned the agreement in drastic terms:

„Commissioner Roth and the memorial sites cemented a hierarchy of victims of German violence, de facto based on skin colour.“

Way forward

Given that the current legislative term is almost over, it’s safe to assume that the state-driven consultation process on additional dimensions of remembrance will not produce any tangible result until the next national election in September 2025. Therefore, those interested in giving colonialism its proper place in Germany’s memory culture should not wait on the sidelines, but rather create civil society spaces for open, inclusive debates. This becomes even more urgent as Germany (and Europe) experience a shift to the political right and the Gaza/Israel war has deepened societal divisions. Also, memory work on colonialism has become more contested as it is seen by some as closely linked to post-colonial studies, a discursive field often accused of antisemitism.

Key participants

In reaching out to a broad spectre of society for such debates, memorial sites for the Nazi era would need to be invited as key participants. During the controversy around the „framework concept“, they have repeatedly supported the proposal to establish colonialism as third pillar, as stated by the German Memorial Association:

„We expressly welcome the inclusion of colonial crimes as a further pillar of the Federal Republic’s culture of remembrance.“

Jens-Christian Wagner, Director of the memorial sites Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora, who took part in the meeting with Commissioner Roth, reported on the discussion there:

„Everyone agreed that it must be the state’s task to honour the victims of German colonial crimes. And this is also a topic in the memorial sites. In Buchenwald, for example, we deal with the colonial connections in the history of the concentration camps.“

Colonial contexts in Buchenwald …

The memorial site at the former concentration camp of Buchenwald close to Weimar has worked intensively on colonial entanglements during the Nazi era. At least 1.000 people with colonial connections were held captive there, including around 300 men and women from Algeria. The group of Dutch prisoners included high-ranking government officials, politicians and experts from the so-called motherland and its colony Indonesia. Buchenwald has also documented the fate of West African soldiers who were imprisoned as members of the French army.

… and Neuengamme

The memorial site at Neuengamme has engaged in educational work and published on the topic „Colonial and racist thinking and actions in National Socialism“. As Susann Lewerenz, head of educational programmes at the institution put it:

„Although the German state no longer had its own colonies since its defeat in the First World War, colonial racist patterns of thought and interpretation continued to have an impact even after formal German colonial rule – albeit under changed conditions and with partially changed functions and consequences. Together with anti-Semitic stereotypes and National Socialist forms of racism, they influenced German self-perception and perception of others and state action between 1933 and 1945.“

Dialogue with former colonies

Discourses on the inclusion of colonialism into Germany’s memory culture would, undoubtedly, benefit from dialogue with civil society groups in former colonies. They could share lessons from (post)colonial remembrance in their respective countries and articulate expectations for such work in the country of the former colonizer, including possible collaboration in the future. Based on historical and contemporary experiences of intersectional suffering, trauma and healing, they may also provide critical insights for nurturing multi-perspective approaches in Germany.