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Historian Jürgen Zimmerer on Germany’s other genocide

INTERVIEW! Is it time for Germany to take responsibility for its colonial crimes? Historian Jürgen Zimmerer on the Herero-Nama genocide, the need to ‘decolonise’ the Humboldt Forum and why Germany is still repressing its colonial past.

Image for Historian Jürgen Zimmerer on Germany's other genocide

Photo by Kettengefangene@National Archives of Namibia, Windhoek. Historian Jürgen Zim­merer is one of the most respected experts in German colonial history.

As far as many Germans are concerned, there’s one genocide – the Holocaust. What remains lesser-known are the crimes committed during Germany’s 34-year colonial rule in Southwest Africa, now Namibia. From 1904 to 1908, some 75,000 Herero and Nama people were killed by ex­ecution, internment in concentration camps and death from thirst and starvation under the Germans’ “extermination order”. For decades now, historians and activists have been campaigning for Germany to recognise this as a genocide, and perhaps to begin pay­ing reparations. Negotiations with Namibia at government level are ongoing, and while German politicians have shown increasing willingness to accept responsibility for a crime that few risk to call a ‘genocide’, a for­mal unconditional apology has not yet been made. We spoke to historian Jürgen Zim­merer, one of the most respected – and vocal – experts in the fields of German colonial history and international genocide studies.

Germany is often pointed out as a role model for the way it came to terms with its Holocaust past – admitting guilt and offering reparations for it. Why is it so hard when it comes to colonial crimes?

The key is that Germans learned, were forced to learn, and to understand – unless they’re from the extreme right – that the Holocaust was catastrophic. They do accept the guilt for the Holocaust, but they insist that this is a unique guilt, a Sonderfall, a special case within German history. They say that you can’t link the 12 years of Nazism to German history proper. If you look at public dis­course after the war, things were blamed on a few Nazis and not society at large. Now, you can blame a lot of things on Hitler, but not the Herero genocide. You have to admit that there already were genocidal tendencies in German administration 30 years before the Holocaust. It really forces the question of the Holocaust and genocide back into history, and that’s why it’s so contested.

Another argument is that people who wanted a more positive identification chose a different playing field – at least pre-AfD. They would not attack you and say, “The Holocaust is not as bad as you thought.” But they would say, “The Holocaust is our guilt, and colonialism is the guilt of the British and the French. Since the colonial powers don’t engage with their guilt, why are we Germans forced to engage with ours?” It’s a nihilist, apologetic perspective.

So is part of the colonial amnesia an attempt to build a positive national nar­rative that would find its roots in an ide­alised, guilt-free Imperial Germany? The desire to say, “Well, the Nazis were bad, but before that, Germany was so much better”? Because colonialism suggests a longer darker history.

Yes, because what we discuss when we discuss German colo­nialism, as with the Humboldt Forum and so on, is basically German national identity. And I think that the Humboldt Forum – and the celebration of Alexander von Humboldt in September this year – is actually an at­tempt by some to replace the guilty German narrative by turning back to a narrative of Germany as a society of researchers, of scholars, of philosophers.

“Das Land der Dichter und Denker”

Or, as is sometimes said, “the Volk der Richter und Henker”. And now it’s interesting that Berlin is visibly erasing the history of the 20th century, and replacing it with the 19th century. That’s what the Prussian Palace and the Humboldt Forum stand for – the 19th century, and Berlin as a scholarly capital. And I think that is at the core of this debate. Because we are negotiat­ing our national narratives.

Neil MacGregor, director of the Hum­boldt Forum, has said that he’s in­spired by the Humboldt brothers as representatives of an era of innocent, pre-colonial cosmopolitanism.

I think that Neil MacGregor chose not to un­derstand what colonialism means – that colonialism is a lot more than the physi­cal subjugation of people under foreign rule, or their extermination, or their ethnic cleansing. Culture plays an important role. Look at his career – he was the director of the Brit­ish Museum, which is by all accounts the place on earth with the most stolen objects. So this guy came to Berlin, at a point in time when the first criticisms of what I call “colonial amnesia” were voiced. He came to solve the problem of the Humboldt Forum, while he is actually the one person who has a track record of not engaging with the colonial legacy of a cultural institution. And I think that is quite telling.

World-famous looted pieces like the Benin Bronzes will be part of the exhibits at the new Humboldt Forum. Is this a case of aggravated handling of stolen goods? National museums are filled with them, pretty unapologetically! Are they scared of having to give them back?

Yes, but what’s at stake isn’t just restitu­tion – which only concerns the most famous objects. What they are more afraid of is that they’ll have to engage in the history of their collection. What role did the ethnological and natural history museums play in the project of colonialism? In my opinion, it’s at least a symbiotic relationship. They showed to the German or the British bourgeoisie how “superior” they were to those people from different continents, who could be colonised because they were “inferior”. I also think it raises the question of Euro­pean superiority as such. Because if you talk about colonial responsibility then you ask, “What role did colonialism play in mak­ing Europe, in enabling the Global North’s economic take-off?”

What about the argument that qualify­ing the case of the Herero and Nama as “genocide” could or would relativise the Holocaust?

I think it was Hannah Arendt who first pointed to the connection of im­perialism and Nazism and the Holocaust, to say that there are certain tendencies within bureaucracy which you find both in imperial­ism and in the Holocaust – or in the Ger­man occupation policy in Eastern Europe. My argument is that the Holocaust indeed is something singular because of the anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is specific in a way, because it is an ideology of inferiority: Germans felt inferior to the Jews. Whereas colonial racism is a racism of superiority. But if you look at colonialism and its links to the Third Reich, you really have to look at the Lebensraum policy in the East – the advance to conquer and occupy a colonial empire in Russia. And this is basically the link. To move 50 or 60 million Slavs to Siberia where they will starve and vanish – the Generalplan Ost – is a colonial, an imperial concept.

So do you see parallels between the two genocides that would break a final taboo, in German minds – that the Ho­locaust was a Sonderfall, a parenthesis in history?

A lot of scholars have said that a Zivilisationsbruch (breach of civilisation) occurred with the Holocaust. And the idea of taboo responds to that. But if Zivilisa­tionsbruch means the first time you conquer a country and exterminate its population, then the Holocaust is not a Zivilisationsbruch, because that happened throughout the period of settler colonialism, time and again. So you actually have to rephrase all the questions about whether the Holocaust is singular – it’s a question you can’t really answer. Historians are much more interested in asking what exactly is singular about the Holocaust. And it’s not the killing of large numbers. It’s the turning against part of one’s own society, and this anti-Semitism, with its basis of inferiority.

Until now, Germany hasn’t formally rec­ognised the genocide, despite individual gestures from some politicians and pressure from historians and activists. If you were Chancellor, what would you do?

The Parliament should immediately recognise the genocide, and the Chancellor or the President should issue an apology. That is what you do. If you accept guilt and responsibility, then you apologise. You can’t make an apology for a past crime conditional on the other side signing that they will not demand money from you. How dare they do this! I still think the only way forward is a major symbolic gesture. I have argued for the renaming of the Humboldt Forum to the Benin Forum, because of the looted objects. I mean, this is the palace of the emperor in whose name the Herero-Nama genocide was committed. That major square inside? Fill it up half a meter deep with sand from the Omaheke Desert. Put barbed wire fences on this Baroque façade, and say, “This is the me­morial to the victims of the genocide.” Then we can talk about the decolonised position of the Humboldt Forum. We need to decolonise institutions, particularly these ethnological museums. And it’s not decolonisation if we restitute two or three things. We need to really reflect on museums where stereotypes and racism have been produced. Instead of exhibiting other people’s objects, we should exhibit ourselves and our racism and how our racist stereotypes have been produced.

How did you become interested in the history of German colonialism? Was it a popular topic when you started nearly 30 years ago?

Not at all. I didn’t learn anything about it at school – I think we just touched upon it and said, “The Germans were good colonisers,” and “They built the railway,” an argument you hear time and again. Then, when at Oxford I studied colonial and imperial history and wrote my masters thesis with Terence Ranger, he said: “There’s something there, I don’t know what it is, I don’t speak German – you research it.” So I started digging, and I couldn’t believe what I found. And I thought that it explains so much about our contemporary world. I just got hooked. If this isn’t worth spending your scholarly life on, what topic is?

You use the word responsibility a lot. Do you think guilt is not a useful concept in this discussion?

What is guilt? Guilt is a moral category. How can I be guilty for something that happened 100 years before I was born? That’s why I call it responsibility. You can be born after the crime – 100 years, or 200 years after enslavement or colonisa­tion – but you bear responsibility for those people who were disenfranchised at the time or killed or put in poverty.

Do you feel personally responsible for German colonialism and about the Holocaust?

I feel responsible to address the consequences of the Holocaust and of the colonial times. I also want to identify with the Germans and I can’t just say “Yes, I identify with Beethoven and Goethe, but not with Himmler or von Trotha.” You either get the full package or you get none of it – you can’t cherry-pick.