The Future of the Zeitenwende

Feb 05, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende: Blind Spot in Colonial History

Germany has so far failed to face up to its history as a colonial power in Africa and Asia.

Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier legt am Denkmal der Helden des Maji-Maji-Krieges im Memorial Park von Songea einen Kranz nieder. Er beendete seine Tansania-Reise am Mittwoch mit einem Beitrag zur Aufarbeitung der deutschen Kolonialvergangenheit und traf in Songea Familien, deren Vorfahren in einem brutal geführten Krieg in der Kolonie Deutsch-Ostafrika gestorben sind.
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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spent three days visiting Tanzania, including the city of Songea, in the fall of 2023. It was here, in the south of the country, that in 1906 the German colonial rulers had dozens of resistance fighters executed. The executions were part of the brutal suppression of the Maji Maji uprising in the then German colony of East Africa, in which an estimated 300,000 people died. Steinmeier visited the Maji Maji Museum, graves of resistance fighters, and a school in Songea. It was a historic moment.

During his trip, the president admitted that few in Germany are aware of the suppression of the uprising—just as Germany’s colonial history has long played only a minor role in the German culture of remembrance. Now, for the first time, the German president publicly asked for forgiveness. “I bow before the victims of German colonial rule,” said Steinmeier in Songea. “And as German Federal President, I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your ancestors here.” He promised to work toward restituting the remains of Tanzanian resistance fighters which had been looted by German colonial rulers.

Steinmeier's visit and his public request for forgiveness are part of a second, less noticed turning point in German foreign policy: a “pivot to the Global South,” which the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, flanked here by the president, is systematically pursuing. The reasons are realpolitik. But the consequence is also a readjustment of the remembrance policy paradigms of German foreign policy. The reactions of many countries in the Global South to Israel's war against Hamas show how difficult this path may be for Germany in particular.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has called into question many historical and realpolitik principles of German foreign policy. “Change through trade” is considered a failure. For decades, foreign policy makers from both the Scholz’ center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the opposition center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) also claimed reconciliation and reparations as motives for close relations with Russia. Some were serious. Others dressed up Germany’s interest in cheap Russian gas as moral compensation for the crimes of National Socialism.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 brought this edifice of justification crashing down. Historians of Eastern European used public attention regarding German historical policy to point out that the concentration of German reparation efforts on Russia is difficult to justify anyway, given the many victims of the Nazis in Ukraine.

In practical terms, the war meant that Germany and the alliance of other Western Ukraine-supporting states needed partners, and they also looked for these in the Global South. Germany campaigned for support for the United Nations resolutions on Ukraine. Support for Western sanctions against Russia was sought, not least in India. India is also increasingly seen as a market in Germany now that exports to Russia have collapsed and business with China is increasingly seen as a geopolitical risk. Germany also had to find numerous new suppliers to replace Russian gas. In addition to the Gulf states, the German government also looked at African countries. In May 2022, Chancellor Scholz negotiated cooperation in gas production in Senegal. In October 2023, he traveled to Nigeria, and during his trip gas supplies to Germany were also the subject of talks.

Unsettling Experience

In many countries, however, Germany is confronted with another gap in its historical memory. In the Global South, Germany is seen as part of the West that colonized and exploited African, Asian, and South American countries for centuries, as part of a West whose prosperity and supremacy are based on this colonial exploitation.

For Germany, this is a shocking experience, as its own colonial history was considered to be of secondary importance until the 2000s. According to the popular narrative, German colonialism only began late, in the 1880s. The German colonial empire was smaller than those of the British or French and, although it made individual colonial entrepreneurs rich, it remained a loss-making business for the empire. German colonialism ended with its defeat in the World War I, long before the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in the aftermath of the World War II. 

Debates about decolonization and the associated historical reappraisal did not take place in this modern German state, unlike in the United Kingdom or France. German colonial crimes such as the suppression of the Maji Maji uprising and the Herero and Namaqua genocide in what is now Namibia played hardly any role in German politics of remembrance or in school lessons for a long time. It was only with the rise of post-colonial NGOs and research, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, that public debates arose, for example about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin or street names. Until 2022, there were still streets in Berlin named after Gustav Nachtigal and Adolf Luederitz—the former founded West African colonies as Reichskommissar, the latter was a merchant who was involved in the colonization of what is now Namibia.

In the wake of the public post-colonial debates and not least the realpolitik “turn toward the Global South,” the German colonial debt became more relevant for German foreign relations. Talks with Namibia on a reconciliation agreement began under former Chancellor Angela Merkel; an agreement was reached in 2021, but it is currently subject of court cases in Namibia, as representatives of the Herero and Namaqua have filed lawsuits against it.

In 2022, Germany transferred back the ownership rights to numerous Benin bronzes—art objects that British colonial soldiers had plundered at the end of the 19th century in what is now Nigeria and sold to German museums. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and State Secretary for Culture Claudia Roth travelled to Abuja in 2022 to return individual pieces (although many are still on display in the Humboldt Forum, albeit contextualized as colonial loot).

At the same time, Scholz has upgraded relations with African countries and, not least, with India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first state guests to be received by Scholz after he took over as chancellor. He also invited Modi to the G7 summit in Germany, as well as the presidents of Indonesia, South Africa, and Senegal. Scholz, who makes sure that everyone knows how much he reads and what he reads, has studied Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire, as well as the monumental history of the Indonesian struggle for independence by David Van Reybrouck, Revolusi.

Do closer relations with Senegal, Nigeria, India, or Indonesia really require a new German historical consciousness—especially since the colonies of the German Empire were predominantly located elsewhere? In fact, one could argue that for many African or Asian states, real and economic policy motives are more important than post-colonial narratives when they deepen their relations with Germany. Investment, technology, help with infrastructure development, the German and European market, and—in the case of India—talks about the delivery of German submarines are attractive even without recognition of Germany’s colonial guilt. Post-colonial narratives are nevertheless playing an increasingly important political role.

Postcolonial Anger

The Global South is trying to form itself as a political force; The group of emerging economies, BRICS, decided to expand in the summer of 2023. Post-colonial narratives overarch many realpolitik issues in international politics—be it in the debates surrounding the debt crisis in many developing countries, in which the dominance of the West in institutions such as the World Bank is up for debate, or in the negotiations on aid for countries particularly affected by the climate catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Russia is doing everything it can to stoke post-colonial anger, in Mali and Niger as well as at the United Nations in New York. At the General Assembly in September 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said (echoing his previous statements), “The contours of the future will be shaped by a struggle between the world majority, which seeks a more equal distribution of prosperity and civilizational diversity, and those few who use neo-colonial methods of oppression to maintain their fleeting dominance.” Colonized against colonizers—this is how Russia would like the world to be.

International reactions to Israel's war in Gaza also reflect post-colonial narratives and stir up societies at their core. Dealing with this is particularly difficult for Germany. The governments of many countries with which it would actually like to maintain closer relations see Israel as a colonial power and describe the country as an apartheid state.

Here—and not least on the Western post-colonial left—the dark side of post-colonial theories has been evident since October 7: When the rights of (real or supposed) “indigenous” populations are placed above international law, this serves to justify violence; terrorist attacks are stylized as “liberation struggles.” Germany is accused of denying other injustices by acknowledging historical guilt for the Shoah and considering Israel’s security a raison d'état. The accusation culminated in the slogan “Free Palestine from German guilt,” which is as simplistic as it is false.

German foreign policy opposes this twisted version of post-colonialism, and rightly so. Israel's war against Hamas also shows the power of this narrative in a world that threatens to divide into colonizers and colonized. This makes it all the more important to understand it—and our own colonial history. 

Anna Sauerbrey is foreign editor of Germany’s weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT.