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

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German Colonial Restitution Monitor

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and colonialism

Strong on historical responsibility, weak on practical consequences

On 5 June 2024, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) delivered a keynote address on colonialism at a book launch in her house. The publication titled „Das Auswaertige Amt und die Kolonien“ (The Foreign Office and the Colonies) was initiated by her predecessor Heiko Maas (Social Democratic Party) with the help of the internal group „Diplomats of Colour“. Its purpose is to provide, for the first time, a systematic analysis of the Foreign Office’s entanglements before, during and after the period of Germany’s colonial rule (English translation in progress). The collection of academic contributions represents the second self-reflective historical assessment after the study on the ministry’s role during the Nazi era, published in 2020.

Missed opportunity or promising start?

Reactions to the speech have been mixed. While some commentators commend the Minister for taking a clear stand on the violent nature of German colonialism, they think that she missed a unique opportunity to present a comprehensive strategy for dialogue with former colonies on past injustice, including restitution and reparation. Such a move would have been especially meaningful in view of the 140th anniversary of the Africa Conference of 1884 in Berlin in which the Foreign Office played a key role. Others see Baerbock’s speech as a promising start for the long-term journey of decolonizing Germany’s Foreign Service.

International research team

Supported by the Foreign Office financially and through access to its archives, the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin coordinated the efforts of an independent international research team which included authors from the former German colonies of Cameroon, Tanzania, Togo and China as well as from Guatemala. However, scholars from the remaining former imperial possessions, Namibia and the South Pacific, were absent. The first section of the 600-page volume addresses the ministry’s policies and activities during formal colonial rule while the second part covers the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era and the time after the Second World War, extending to the present situation of existing colonial representations (monuments, street names etc.).

Dark picture of colonial entanglements

Overall, the contributions paint a rather dark picture of the Foreign Office’s colonial engagements, as summed up by the foreword:

„Due to its active, but all too often primarily reactive, behavior, the Foreign Office shares responsibility for violence and crime in the German colonies as well as for the long-term consequences of colonial rule, which are still felt today.“

Germany’s colonial violence

In her speech, Minister Baerbock recognized the systematic pattern of Germany’s colonial violence, citing the following exemplary facts:

– Death toll of around 300.000 Africans during the Majimaji anti-colonial resistance.

– Wars of annihilation and genocide of Ovaherero and Nama in today’s Namibia.

– Boundless cruelty by German officials and officers, such as the 25 whip lashes widely executed in Togo and other colonies.

Rwandan genocide

The Minister also addresses the persistence of colonial thoughts and attitudes in her Office long after the end of formal colonialism by referring to official reports during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Just 30 years ago, German diplomats used the terms „tribal feuds“ and fighting „in the bush“ as if violence were a natural disposition of Africans. And she identifies the historical responsibility of German colonialism in East Africa which had intended „to increasingly divide the country into the supposed ethnic categories of Tutsi and Hutu“.

Weak on practical consequences

While Minister Baerbock deserves full recognition for not mincing any words about Germany’s abysmal colonial violence, she is quite weak on practical consequences of such insight for her own Office. The two concrete activities listed at the end of her speech are internal steps:

– Starting this summer, the training of young diplomats will address German colonialism more broadly and more systematically.

– Through targeted training, German diplomats are to be sensitized more strongly regarding the country’s colonial history before taking up a post abroad.

Further steps needed

Undoubtedly, the two measures could positively affect the abilities of Germany’s diplomatic corps in better understanding the historical context of interacting with nations of the Global South. What is needed, however, is a comprehensive approach on how the Foreign Office wants to address the country’s colonial legacy. This would include a national framework for „collections from colonial contexts“, including tens of thousands of ancestral remains. Her reference to the restitution of cultural belongings of former colonies held by German institutions remains vague. She mentions the restitution of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in which she personally participated in December 2022 („a first major milestone“) and refers to the ongoing restitution process with Cameroon as „our next big task“. However, dealing with the immense body of translocated colonial entities found everywhere in Germany would require an effective restitution governance which does not exist at the moment.

Dialogue with former colonies

Audiences in Germany and abroad would also be interested to learn how the Foreign Office wishes to shape the dialogue with former colonies in recognition of past injustice and how it intends to respond to growing demands for reparation and redress. One element in a multi-faceted understanding of compensation could be support for spaces of colonial memory in Germany and in the affected countries. Another building block of this kind, coming from a position as perpetrator, could be German initiatives in the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations system (e.g. UNESCO) which would facilitate collective efforts in addressing the history of colonialism and enslavement trade.

Including civil society

Efforts by the Foreign Office and Germany’s government as a whole would benefit by including actors from civil society in Germany and partner countries. In Germany, local activist groups, but also professional associations have shown a growing interest in decolonial activities. For example, the next annual conference of the legal association „Forum Justizgeschichte“ (Forum Judicial History) will focus on the topic „German Justice in (Post)Colonialism“. German architects have begun to take an interest in the architectural heritage of the colonial era. The Leibniz Institute for Educational Media (Georg-Eckert-Institut) has announced its intention to collaborate with scholars in former colonies on school books which represent a multi-perspective understanding of the entangled history, building on similar experiences of joint school book commissions with Poland, Israel and the Czech Republic.

Time’s running out

However, Minister Baerbock has only limited time left to work on the legacy of colonialism in the current electoral term. With national elections scheduled for autumn of 2025, meaningful policy decisions would need to happen in the next twelve months, before the electoral campaign gets into full swing. To become effective government policy, the Foreign Office would need to agree on a joint concept with the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, Claudia Roth, another leading representative of the Green Party. Expectations are high that the two Green-led ministries will be able to show significant progress in dealing with colonialism until their present term runs out.