Germany’s other guilt

The country’s little-known colonial history in Africa is on display at German Colonialism, a new exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum through May 2017. It may not hit all its marks perfectly, but is still worth the visit.

Image for Germany’s other guilt

Washed-out railway embankment between Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz, photograph, around 1910 © Deutsches Historisches Museum

The country’s little-known colonial history in Africa is on display at German Colonialism, a new exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum with laudable intention but mixed results.

Anyone grappling with Germany’s colonial past is confronted with two big challenges. One is that this history has been almost completely forgotten to the point that few even remember the country ever had African colonies, thanks partially to the overwhelming weight of Holocaust guilt. Secondly, over the course of its relatively short 34-year colonial history, Germany managed to commit what’s only recently been recognised as its first genocide. Tackling these two issues head-on should have been enough for any curator. Unfortunately, the DHM saddled itself with a third, laudable but overambitious one: to show this little-known, murderous colonial history through the eyes of the colonised. To this end, two guest curators from Namibia and Tanzania were brought in to provide a varnish of credibility.

The open-plan basement level of I.M. Pei’s exhibition hall has been divided into five “rooms” by topic: dominion, trade, racism, collections and “colonialism without colonies”. And the “point of view of the colonised” is expressed upfront: the first exhibit you’ll see is of African statues portraying European soldiers and generals – a contrast to the dark, angular sculptures we’ve all seen presented as “discoveries” from the continent.

Past this first exhibit, German Colonialism offers a rather classic educational journey through history seen through guilty German eyes, charting the colonisation of Africa starting from the Berlin Conference in 1884, when Germany joined 13 other European countries in dividing the continent and the Kaiserreich’s march into present-day Namibia, Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Ghana and Togo, as well as parts of Southeast Asia, and ending a scant 34 years later, when defeated Germany had to hand over its colonies to the League of Nations (essentially Britain and France). Rather than the victims’ point of view, throughout the perspective remains that of the guilt-ridden perpetrator – an exercise Germans are well-versed in.

Significantly, the plaster moulds that ethnographer Otto Finsch took from indigenous people for his studies in eugenics (to the happy conclusion that there was only one human species!) are left in their cases, “out of respect,” says the tour guide. Advertising posters for Sunlicht Seife – soap meant to turn black skins into spotless white ones – abound in the “racism” room. A centrepiece of the exhibition is the infamous Herero and Nama genocide, officially recognised by the German government this year. Between 1904 and 1907, up to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people living in Germany-controlled Namibia were systematically killed in concentration camps, beheaded or left in the desert to die of starvation and dehydration. The Askari, indigenous people who served as soldiers for German colonisers, are also a recurring theme.

The emphasis is very squarely placed on artefacts and the history behind them – for instance, a rather unspectacular bottle is labeled as containing soil from Mount Kilimanjaro as presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II after Hans Meyer claimed the mountain with a German flag in 1889. Accompanying texts support an enlightening narrative on the proprietorial attitude of Europeans who felt entitled to claim any patch of land they reached “first”, be it as explorers or athletes. (Another souvenir brought by Meyer to his emperor, a piece of lava rock from the briefly renamed Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze, is on permanent display at the Grottensaal, the concert hall of Neues Palais in Potsdam.)

In sync with the post-colonial studies and local campaigns of today, the room “Colonialism without colonies” is arguably one to bring your extended family to. Exhibits here focus on the language and imagery used to describe and depict people of colour, and the colonies as they’ve lingered in our urbanscape – mostly in the form of street names. The word Mohre didn’t always have the derogatory meaning that we attribute to it today, but shouldn’t Mohrenstraße and its U-Bahn station be renamed all the same? The curatorial concept gets a little lost in interactive playfulness when visitors are offered to select terms from “Afrodeutsche” to “person of colour” and are served an audio recording in which the aforementioned “foreigners” are asked to comment on the monikers – something you might find random and demagogic, or just handy for your everyday German vocab.

German Colonialism might miss its own absurdly ambitious aim to show the African perspective, but it nonetheless makes for a valuable foray into a subject seldom explored beyond academic research and post-colonial activism. The exhibition seems to primarily attract smartly dressed Germans getting their fix of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, but the DHM also offers tours in French and English, for those looking for a commendable educational afternoon activity.

Deutscher Kolonialismus, Through May 2017 | Deutsches Historisches Museum, Mitte