Germany’s dark colonial history in Africa

Hans-Georg Betz, Fair Observer.

Germany is the great latecomer in Western Europe. For much of its history, Germany was a territorial space occupied by dozens of autonomous political entities — kingdoms, principalities, duchies, margraviates, free cities. It was not until 1870 that Germany was united. By then, the world had largely been divided among Europe’s great powers. The German Empire scrambled to claim a share of the colonial pie. Most of its colonies lay in Africa, from today’s Togo and Cameroon to present-day Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

Germany’s relatively short-lived colonial venture is one more dark spot in the country’s history. Its massacre of the Herero people in German Southwest Africa, in today’s Namibia, in 1904 was the first genocide of the 20th century. When the Hereros rose up against the German colonizers, the colonial troops machine-gunned them, poisoned their wells and drove them into the desert and left them to die. Altogether more than 60,000 Hereros perished. It was not until 2004 that the German government acknowledged the massacre and offered an official apology.

At the same time, however, it refused to recognize the massacre as a genocide and to compensate the victims’ descendants. Some 15 years later, there was some progress, but nothing was settled. Negotiations were dragging on, raising uncomfortable questions. As an article in The Washington Post put it earlier this year, Germany’s position on the Herero massacre stands “in glaring contrast to the attention and money Germany has dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust.” The German position rests on legalistic grounds: While Germany has finally recognized the massacre as an instance of genocide, it has maintained that “the legal implications established under the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide do not apply to earlier mass killings.”

Dark History

This might, at least in part, explain a curious “scandal” that excited Germany’s intellectual community a few weeks ago. It involved the Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe. Highly regarded in Germany, the recipient of a number of prizes for his work, Mbembe committed a cardinal sin of comparing apartheid South Africa’s treatment of its black population to present-day Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In Germany, this hits a nerve, given the centrality of the Holocaust in German official memory. For Mbembe, a citizen of a country that once was a German colony, the point of reference is likely to be closer to the observation made in The Washington Post article than to German sensibilities with respect to the state of Israel.

While the German media treated the incidence as a case of Holocaust relativization, for Mbembe it is a Black Lives Matter moment, given Germany’s refusal to compensate African victims of genocide, unlike Jewish victims of genocide. What African activists take away from how Germany has responded to the Herero massacre as compared to the Holocaust is that “black people’s lives are less important.”

Germany’s role in the quasi-extermination of an African people is despicable, but at least Germany played no role in the most despicable crime against Africans — the slave trade. Or so it seems. After all, at the heyday of slavery, Germany did not exist. Yet Germans did — and they played their part in the transatlantic slave trade.

It all started in 1682, with the founding of the African Company by the grand elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, Frederick William. Determined to rival Europe’s great sea powers, he ordered the establishment of a fort on the coast of present-day Ghana, to be named Groß Friedrichsburg. The fort was designed to serve as a point of departure for the German slave trade. In the decades that followed, German slave ships, such as the Friedrich III, transported thousands of African slaves overseas. Many of them ended up on the slave market of St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, over which Prussia gained control from Denmark in 1685. For some time, St. Thomas had the dubious distinction of being the most important slave market in the world.

German merchants were an intricate part of the slave trade, particularly in France. Trading German linen fabrics for slaves in West Africa, who then were shipped overseas to the sugar plantations in Central and South America, they made a fortune. Some of them founded their own shipping lines devoted to the slave trade and used to supply the French overseas possessions with slave labor. One of the major destinations was present-day Haiti, which at the time was the source of three-quarters of the world’s sugar output.  

Other German merchants were based in London from where they contributed, directly or indirectly, to the slave trade. One of the best-known merchants was Heinrich Karl von Schimmelmann from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the east of Germany. Von Schimmelmann gained his fortune from his possessions on the Danish Virgin Islands, based on the forced labor of more than a thousand slaves. In his later life, von Schimmelmann settled in Wandsbek, a faubourg of Hamburg. There he quickly acquired a reputation as a major benefactor of the community. In 2006, Wandsbek’s administration commissioned a bust in his honor. Two years later, following protests from antiracist activists who doused the bust with red paint, the new red-Green administration ordered its removal.

Growing Attention

In recent years, Germans’ involvement in the slave trade has received growing attention, both from academia and the media. In general, however, Germany has largely ignored the country’s involvement in Africa, particularly when compared to the Nazi period and the heinous crimes committed during the period. In fact, like in other countries, for a long time there was a fundamental lack of sensibility to the impact of Germany’s brief colonial past. When I was growing up, I was particularly fond of a confectionary commonly known as Negerkuss — negro’s kiss.

As late as 2016, a German court had to decide whether or not an employee could be fired for racism because he had ordered a Negerkuss (rather than the neutral Schokokuss, or chocolate kiss) in a canteen, ironically enough from a woman originally from Cameroon. The decision: it could not. This was a singular case: The vast majority of Germans have been sensitized to the racist connotations of confectionaries known as Negerkuss or Mohrenkopf (Moor’s head).

A second example: When I was growing up, one of the most popular children’s books was “Der Struwelpeter,” a collection of horrible stories warning German children of what could happen if they behaved badly. Among the stories is the tale of a little girl who refuses to listen to her parents and plays with fire, only to be burnt alive. Or the story of the little boy who loves to suck his thumbs, only to see them cut off by a tailor with gigantic scissors. Or, finally, the story of the little boys who make fun of a “kohlpechrabenschwarzer Mohr” — a really very, very black Moor — going for a walk. As a punishment, St. Nicolas dunks them into a giant ink pot — and then they are as black as the Moor.

Third example: When I was growing up, a favorite card game was schwarzer Peter — black Pete. The goal of the game was to pass on the black Pete. The one holding the card at the end lost.

I suspect that growing up with images that portray Africans in a largely negative and dismissive way has a subtle impact that explains why Germans and other Europeans have had a hard time coming to terms with the legacy of a history of imperialism, racism, exploitation and misery visited upon a part of humanity deemed inferior, without value and not worthy of basic compassion. Those who object to the demolition of the statues dedicated to the agents of human misery might want to confront the horrors of colonialism and the slave trade. Their response says much about their humanity.

Hans-Georg Betz is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Zurich. He previously taught at Johns Hopkins University and York University. He holds a PhD in Political Science from MIT.

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