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

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German Colonial Restitution Monitor

Interview with Helge Lindh, Member of Parliament, on German Restitution Policies

The cultural policy spokesperson for the social democratic faction in the Bundestag comments on coming to terms with Germany’s colonial history and the necessary political consequences (interview on April 12, 2024)

Question Thomas Fues: What position do you represent regarding coming to terms with Germany’s colonial past and what steps in German policies are necessary in this area?

Standards and procedures for repatriation and restitution missing

Answer Helge Lindh MP: The first steps have now been taken. However, we still do not have uniform standards and procedures for repatriation and restitution. In the last federal budget it was decided that there should be a funding facility for the restitution of artifacts from colonial contexts under responsibility of State Minister for Culture Claudia Roth. On the other hand, a service point in the Federal Foreign Office with a focus on human remains is to be set up and financed. In practice, however, I am currently realizing that, unfortunately, there is still no concept for the area of human remains and the other fund has not yet been designed. We now have money, which is welcome. Nevertheless, I critically note that even without such funds, we should have been able to initiate such procedures long ago and clarify how the financing works and what the processes are.

I say this with reference to a current case in Wuppertal (see details below). But you can generalize that. In my opinion, we absolutely need precise responsibilities, processes and contact points so that interested parties in the communities of origin or in Germany, such as private individuals, municipalities, museums, church groups and civil society initiatives, know who they can turn to. And where you can get information about procedures, financing options, support with visits, etc.

Respect and surrender of control towards communities of origin

This is necessary if you are serious about the communities of origin, as I am currently experiencing in a specific case in Wuppertal. The descendants of the victims and the relevant communities of origin must be included. This results in costs, e.g. through delegation visits and research. For reasons of reliability, it is necessary to move away from individual cases and act on the basis of fixed mechanisms that can be adapted in each case. We already have similar experiences in the area of Nazi art theft, but this didn’t work well either. This is the craft side of respect and surrender of control towards communities of origin. We should act from a position of serving and provide appropriate procedures and financing options.

Question: There is a blocking note in the federal budget that aims to require the State Minister for Culture (BKM) and the Foreign Office to create a joint concept for the return of artifacts and human remains from colonial contexts. Do you have information about the extent to which this requirement has already been implemented?

No concept to this point

Answer Helge Lindh MP: Unfortunately, I don’t have this concept yet. It is known that there is a division of labour between BKM (responsible for cultural assets) and the Foreign Office (human remains). This has been agreed, but the necessary financing concept from the Foreign Office is still pending. That is very unfortunate. I am pushing hard to complete the concept quickly. Even before the decision in the Bundestag on the blocking note, it was clear to everyone that the procedures had to be consolidated and structured.

However, so far there are only individual solutions. Sometimes prominent cases, such as the Benin Bronzes, where the federal and state governments took joint action. Or smaller cases that are not so prominent, such as initiatives by museums or corresponding networks. But there is no well-rehearsed modus operandi. The proposed concept is intended to regulate how the federal government wants to institutionalize certain structures and mechanisms. The fact that this concept is not yet available is a dilemma. Therefore, there are no well-established processes and the resources are not available. That’s where we’re stuck right now.

Question: Is there a time horizon for presenting the concept?

By the summer break at the latest

Answer Helge Lindh MP: I expect, and this is also my insistence, that the concept will be available in the next few weeks, at the latest by the summer break. If that doesn’t happen, you have to find solutions in advance. If necessary, you have to speak to the budget committee again. It would be a joke of history if restitution processes fail because of money, even though the sums are not exorbitant. And it would be all the more a joke in history if the additional funding could not be realized because the foundations for it were not conceptualized in time.

Question: There are critical voices from communities of origin regarding the division of labour between BKM and the Foreign Office who want a central point of contact in the German government system. What do you think?

Understandable concerns from communities of origin

Answer Helge Lindh MP: I can understand that well. In my case, that’s how I experience it too. I do not know how the current division of labour between BKM and Foreign Office came about. Maybe because BKM is responsible for works of art, the Foreign Office for diplomatic relations.

I could have easily imagined that this could be put in one hand. Or if two houses are responsible, a joint leadership or a joint steering group could be established. The BKM is about culture of remembrance, hence its responsibility for colonialism. On the other hand, there are bilateral diplomatic relations and thus the aspect of possible reparations, as we know from Namibia. The cultural policy and foreign policy dimensions are important; both houses must be involved.

Ideally “everything from a single source”

I can well understand the concerns of the communities of origin because there is a risk that having two different institutions creates ambiguities and additional time expenditure. Ideally, the “everything from a single source” approach would be implemented. In practice, however, the two houses have to work together because the Foreign Office’s involvement is also necessary for works of art.

Question: The Federal Foreign Office is currently in bilateral discussions with Tanzania and Cameroon about possible framework agreements to come to terms with colonial history. What do you think should be achieved here?

Parliamentary participation sensible

Answer Helge Lindh MP: In the parliamentary space, we have not yet received any information from the executive about these events. I take our conversation as an opportunity to ask questions about this topic. Parliamentary participation seems sensible to me. In general, it is necessary to think about how BKM and the Foreign Office want to act in such cases. It would need to be clarified whether there should be a general structure for bilateral agreements with former colonies with country-specific adjustments that take special circumstances into account.

Municipalities alone overwhelmed

I recently took part in a conference in Detmold. There it became clear that provenance research and restitution issues are also important in small towns and rural areas. Binational concepts can offer a useful framework for such actors. Also with regard to future collaborations, for example in the scientific area. In practice, there will be different sources of funding for this. Comprehensive structures can be helpful here to include different levels in the German federal system, because municipalities alone are overwhelmed. In any case, good coordination between the federal and state governments is required.

Question: To what extent have you dealt with the planned Agency for International Museum Cooperation in parliament?

Important role for museum agency

Answer Helge Lindh MP: During this legislative period, we have only marginally discussed the agency which has not yet become operational in Parliament. The debates in the Culture Committee were overshadowed by other topics, such as the confrontation with anti-Semitism and the possible competition between post-colonialism and Holocaust remembrance. In the future, the museum agency could play an important role in coming to terms with colonialism and promote new cooperation on a partnership level with formerly colonized societies. As I have heard, the Foreign Office also lacks a concept for the museum agency to release blocked funds in the federal budget.

Question: Have you already dealt in parliament with the space of learning and remembrance of colonialism listed in the federal government’s coalition agreement?

Unfortunate constellation for framework concept

Answer Helge Lindh MP: We were already further along on this issue. There have been discussions about this at the specialist level in the past. Hamburg and Berlin have expressed ambitions for a central location. An alternative model would be decentralized places of remembrance. The decision on this has not yet been made. This question should be clarified in the context of the framework concept of remembrance culture. However, there is criticism of the corresponding draft which is likely to be withdrawn. An unfortunate constellation has arisen because Nazi memorials and memorial sites for the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) are concerned that funding will be cut and a shift in interest will occur. That would be a stupid development, because additional resources would have to be provided to deal with colonialism.

I also find it regrettable that anti-Semitism in parts of the cultural scene and the post-colonial movement has aroused strong skepticism towards the topic of colonialism. Because the societies of origin have a right for us coming to terms with our colonial history. Colonialism is supposed to play a role in the aforementioned framework; the envisioned space of learning and remembrance should be embedded there. At the moment, however, it is not clear to what extent this plan can be implemented during this legislative period.

Space of learning and remembrance of colonialism outside framework concept

The space of learning and remembrance of colonialism could also be realized outside of the framework concept of remembrance. That would perhaps be a clever way to avoid giving the impression that this would be at the expense of Nazi remembrance or GDR remembrance. However, sites of colonial memory are complex projects because genocide, persecution, murders and excesses of violence took place abroad. This asymmetrical situation will trigger a lot of thinking. It is important on our part to give up control so that we can move forward together with formerly colonized countries. I think it would be very nice to have a colonial memorial site in which the descendants of different communities are involved.

Question: What long-term decolonial perspectives do you have in mind beyond this legislative period?

Imperative to deal with colonial injustice

Answer Helge Lindh MP: We have to be very vigilant. It cannot be denied that there have been anti-Semitic statements from the post-colonial camp. This must be clearly stated. However, we should not draw the conclusion from this that the confrontation with colonialism is suspended. We must push forward with this task in the awareness that colonial injustice must be dealt with. Beyond the current conflicts over Palestine/Israel, we should concentrate on what is really happening in relations with previously colonized societies. The Shoah is an incomparable injustice. The cases of historical injustice must not be set off against each other. This is neither historically appropriate, morally sensible, nor politically intelligent. The fact that parts of the communities of origin, e.g. in Namibia and South Africa, are now using international law to argue against Germany creates defensive reactions and blocks the process of colonial reappraisal.

Gesture of humility

We should now get involved in concrete cases to deal with colonial injustice with a gesture of humility and work together with the communities of origin, even if this can be a painful process. Because we are intertwined in a kind of community of fate.

Question: Could you elaborate on the specific case in Wuppertal mentioned?

Answer Helge Lindh MP: This is about the remains of a woman from Australia who, as part of an indigenous population group, the First Nations in Australia, was abducted by a human trafficker to appear in variety shows in the USA and Europe. She then died in Wuppertal and was presumably buried in a Protestant cemetery. This was discovered some time ago and has now been revisited as part of the increased interest in colonialism. It must first be clarified whether it is really the person mentioned. This proof requires scientific studies and is associated with costs. It is very important to link the process back to the communities of origin because questions arise, for example about possible burial rituals, violation of the peace of the dead and whether invasive procedures can be used to take tissue samples for DNA tests. Such very practical questions play a central role.

Effective procedures missing

It also needs to be clarified how the descendants can obtain information on site. In order to then say how they imagine the repatriation, for example through rituals, and to specifically plan the repatriation. In this case, there are busts and plaster casts of the person in Leipzig and Dresden, which should also be brought back. Can this be solved in one process and how will this be financed? In this case it could happen that the descendants come to Germany twice, first for a preliminary investigation and then for the official handover. There are currently no well-established procedures for such cases. We must not violate the dignity of those involved by telling their descendants that we will show you how it should be done. This requires constant coordination and feedback and makes the procedure complicated and time-consuming. But the descendants should decide. Some want repatriation, others don’t. We must not to set any guidelines that others have to adhere to. It is important that the communities of origin are offered assistance, financial resources and contact persons from the German side.