German Rule, African Subjects (2020, Berghahn Books) No rating

Although it lasted only thirty years, German colonial rule dramatically transformed South West Africa. The …

For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the task of subjecting the colonial legacy to reappraisal has even been adopted as an element of government policy: the programme of the fourth Merkel government states that ‘it is part of the fundamental democratic consensus in Germany that the Nazi reign of terror, the SED dictatorship and Germany’s colonial history need to be reappraised and come to terms with’.

Despite this, the debate is concentrated on a narrow range of topics: for example, war crimes and genocide, and whether particular objects in museums were legally acquired. That colonialism in itself was structurally criminal gets lost sight of. For it is indeed the case that not merely were crimes committed under colonialism, as is generally conceded, but rather that colonialism itself is criminal. There is a distinct lack of awareness of this.

A favourite method of approaching the issue is to draw up a balance sheet: aspects of colonialism that are considered to have been positive – the ‘civilizatory achievements’ – are set off against the excessively violent episodes. In this way, war crimes are transformed into exceptional events: the genocide committed against the Herero and Nama, for example, is above all laid at the door of the commanding general, Lothar von Trotha. This is alarmingly reminiscent of the strategy with which German colonial offcials sought to justify particularly brutal events in German South West Africa, as is depicted in my book. The blame always lay only with individuals; nobody called the racist colonial system itself into question. Pointing the finger at individuals who bore a particular degree of blame serves to push the structurally racist and structurally criminal nature of colonialism into the background.

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