medico: Just recently, there seemed to be movement on the issue of the restitution of looted cultural property with Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy writing “Nothing is impossible anymore,” in 2018. Where do we stand today in dealing with our German colonial past?
Jürgen Zimmerer: In 2018 it did indeed seem as if quite a bit might be possible. But what has actually happened? In Germany, politicians have taken first steps, nothing more. At the Benin Summit held at the Federal Chancellery, Germany stated it was willing to return the Benin Bronzes, without committing to which ones and how many. But if no agreement is reached, who decides then? So far there is nothing specific on this in Germany. Belgium, by contrast, has committed to returning cultural property from what is now Congo. Objects identified as looted officially no longer belong to Belgium and will be returned to the Congolese partners as soon as there is a concrete opportunity to do so. In Germany we are miles from that.
Germany is not even capable of a return policy like Belgium?
The German government and museum directors here only ever give in when there is no alternative. There is no proactive engagement with the colonial legacy. First it was claimed that no items had been looted. Then it was said that if looting had happened, of course we will return the items, but that would not be many items, etc. As it is indisputable that the Benin Bronzes were looted, they could immediately restore ownership and arrange for the transfer later when local circumstances allow. In the meantime, they could be shown in Berlin as a loan from Nigeria and Nigeria could be paid a lending fee. Instead, the president of the Berlin-based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, stated in a radio interview that it was up to Germany to decide which cultural items and how many would be restituted. The message being: if you don’t agree to a compromise acceptable to us, you’ll get zilch.
At least the negotiations with Namibia were successful.
This colonial attitude was also repeated in the negotiations with Namibia on reparations for the genocide against the Herero and Nama. The German position was accept our offer or go away empty-handed. That is the opposite of decolonisation. Germany negotiates on the handling of colonial crimes of violence and genocides as if it were negotiating fishing quotas in Brussels: no holds are barred and you try and rip the other side off. This is completely inappropriate given the nature of the matter at stake. The question of restitution is also just a small part of necessary decolonisation. They are negotiating the return of objects whilst at the same time leaving people to drown in the Mediterranean. You have to understand that these two things belong together and are part of the colonial legacy.
Will the flood gates be opened if we return the Benin Bronzes?
The metaphor of the flood gates opening is very problematic. Instead, I would frame it as opening doors and paths, because returning items goes hand in hand with a judgement on colonialism. This is about the image the West and the Global North have of themselves as a bastion of enlightenment and human rights. In Europe we have a narrative of the rise of the West without mentioning the flip sides - slavery, ethnic cleansing or exploitation. If you acknowledge the right to restitution, you admit this dark underside of European history. In the case of the genocide of the Herero and Nama, the German government has admittedly agreed to pay one billion euros over 30 years. But it makes sure to state that it sees it as genocide only from the present-day perspective and that no legal claim exists. So the money does not constitute reparations. The 36 million per year is reconstruction aid. It is a voluntary measure linked to the rhetoric and practice of aid and help. This aid morally elevates the party providing the aid, whereas reparations would be a clear admission of guilt, not self-idealisation. The elevated position is the colonial position.
Back in 1976, in his novel Morenga, author Uwe Timm already traced a direct line linking German colonialism and the crimes of National Socialism. At the time there was no outcry. Today ideas like this would immediately be accused of attempting to relativise the Holocaust. What makes relating the reckoning with colonialism and National Socialism and the extermination of the Jews to each other so difficult?
Since reunification we have basically seen a Berlin Republic that wants to play a new role in the world. The search for an identificatory core is symbolised by the Humboldt Forum, the new building of the Berliner Stadtschloss. The old narrative of Germany as the land of poets and philosophers is being revived. The Berliner Stadtschloss overwrites National Socialist history and its consequences, with its close links to the Kaiserreich and in turn Germany’s violent (colonial) past. Whilst it is true that no one apart from right-wing extremists denies the Holocaust, this new (old) narrative of the Berlin Republic carves the twelve years of National Socialist rule out of this past. The apodictic paradigm of the incomparability of National Socialist crimes promotes this thinking. But really the question should be what is the singularity of the crimes on the one hand, and where are the lines of connection with other violent events on the other? Otherwise, you cut the lines of connection between the Third Reich and German history as a whole. Even those wanting to see German history in a more positive light usually accept the criminal nature of that time, they just see it as untypical of German history. It’s easy for this to then turn into saying that these crimes were so bad that they are virtually outside of history. The colonialism debate counters this interpretation because it establishes that there was genocide before genocide and a racial state before a racial state. So Germany’s history of violence did not begin in 1933, but far earlier. Such a finding entrenches key features of the Third Reich - i.e. racism, anti-Semitism, genocidal policies - in the history of the Kaiserreich. Among historians, however, there is currently a discussion about a more positive reassessment of the Kaiserreich. But really it’s about the debate on the extent to which the crimes of the Third Reich are rooted in German history. This is a fundamental question, like the one about the rise of the West, and the two are certainly linked.
Together with other scholars, you have called inter alia for genocide research to put its own science in the context of today’s global political challenges, especially the climate catastrophe. Why?
Genocide studies is a fledgling discipline. It has only emerged in the last 40 years. The climate crisis, this is what we assume in our call, will act as a catalyst for violence. Our fear is that violence will grow faster in poorer regions because they are also hit earlier and harder by the climate crisis. This does not mean that the climate crisis and violence are automatically linked. But the danger that old ideas of who the enemy is will come into focus when resources are scarce, drawing lines of exclusion along ethnic or religious conflicts, is something we must acknowledge. There is a line of tradition in genocide research that assumes, in keeping with the Western narrative, that Western democratic societies do not commit genocides. According to this narrative, violent crimes of this kind only occur in non-Western states, which has also served as the justification for the interventions of recent decades. In this version, the West rides in as the cavalry and saves people. This has led to a dichotomy: people outside the West are the perpetrators and we are the saviours. In the climate crisis, this idea is absurdity in perfection, because with its consumption of resources, the West is contributing significantly to exacerbating the climate crisis. This means SUV drivers, and not just them, are partly responsible for the violence in other regions. People have reacted strongly to this statement. But that doesn’t change the facts. Our behaviour as individuals has global ramifications.
The postcolonial debates have changed public perception. You can see this in the outrage over the abandonment of the people in Afghanistan, who are being left at the mercy of the Taliban. Do you see new possibilities for a public that is aware of its responsibility for the world?
As a historian my focus is above all on Africa. And here I continue to see the classic colonial pattern where the West, and the public, too, sees itself in the role of helper. Our image of ourselves reproduces itself incessantly: We are the good guys, we are all Albert Schweitzer. This system of help works the same way for other regions, too. Germany declares that it wants to return the Benin Bronzes and “help” with the construction of a museum. We help and help and help. No, if Nigeria were to receive a retroactive fee for the loan of the bronzes, they would no longer need aid money. If we want to keep exhibiting the items – I’m very much in favour of that - then we have to pay, and pay retroactively. Nigeria could use this to build the infrastructure it needs.
We are now visibly and tangibly in a global crisis whose magnitude we have yet to understand. Would a non-Eurocentric universalism help us to understand it, or will we always relapse into Eurocentrism?
I fear that when it comes to the global crisis, we will always end up with Eurocentrism. The good thing is that we are no longer the navel of the world. Climate crisis and colonialism are connected, but so are decarbonisation and decolonisation. We know about the climate crisis and the need for radical change in the Global North. But citizens in the Global North don’t believe it because, for Europeans for over 600 years living in colonial globalisation meant living above their means. This has led to a mentality that assumes that things have always worked out. This is why Europeans, and indeed the Global North as a whole, are totally incapable of responding to this crisis. The young people from “Fridays for Future” are an exception.
You are well networked in the global debate. How do you see the calls of thinkers from the South for a new production of knowledge, to focus on their own sources instead of on European philosophy?
The decentring of Europe - in the US it is a little different - is a reality and this is also an epistemic, also an intellectual decentring. European knowledge and European knowledge production are subsequently losing their hegemonic position. European thinking has to stand the test of global competition, and here it would certainly be advantageous if European policies were based on European ideas and values. It would also be an imperative of decolonial responsibility for the Global North to at least use its scientific capacities, which indisputably exist, to reflect globally on a common future.
What is to be done?
There is no way around sharing and global social justice. If we do not agree on a level of resource consumption that gives everyone the same, things will end in violence or even genocide. Instead of sharing, people are closing themselves off, walls are being built around the world. The consequences of climate change thus mean the end of Europe as we know it. There are only two options: Either we let people from the regions that have become uninhabitable come here. That would change our demographic composition, I can live with that. Or we set up a border regime that makes a mockery of the values we claim to have. Any way you look at it: Europe as we knew it, even if it was just a distorted picture, is dead.
Interview: Katja Maurer
Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa