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Facing the Past to Liberate the Future: Colonial Africa in the German Mind


Germany didn’t play a big role in the colonial history of Africa. They were only there for a short period of time and only in a few countries. It is not an important issue to consider today.


This year, as people have slowly begun to speak about Germany’s colonial past we mark the anniversary of two major events concerning this history. One is the 100th anniversary of the Herero rebellion that culminated in one of the first genocides in modern history. The next is the 120th anniversary of the 1884 Berlin West Africa Conference which marks the beginning of German colonialism. At that conference, the European powers, along with the United States, met to divide the African continent into zones of European influence, Some would say that this was like a cake for all to share but to also maintain their individual pieces. 

As a result of these two anniversaries, Germany’s colonial history suddenly found its way into public discourse. In this article the authors will try to present the dynamics of this discourse by considering the arguments and perspectives of historians, activists, politicians, and other people who are involved in the issue. We will also attempt to answer some of the questions raised concerning the colonial past such as why it has not been spoken about, why common knowledge of the subject is lacking, why it should now be considered, and what should be done about it. The biggest problem concerning this issue is that most people simply do not know about it. Many Germans do not know which colonies were German, how long they were German, nor what happened in the colonies. 

In comparison with other countries, Germany invested in colonies rather late. Nevertheless, discussions of acquiring colonies had gone on since the 16th century. In fact, from 1683-1717, the region of Brandenburg did maintain the colony Groß-Friedrichsburg, in today’s Ghana. But when it became too expensive it was sold to Holland. For the small German states, the financial risk involved in maintaining colonies was too high. The late start of German colonization has to be seen in relation with the late nation building process which was only came to fruition in 1871. The first German chancellor of the unified empire, Otto von Bismarck, was opposed to having colonies due to the possible financial risk. He concentrated on domestic politics in order to build a strong state. Later, when he changed his attitude, he might have been influenced by popular opinion that conceived of a strong nation state with colonies. Bismarck might also have wanted to shift public attention from domestic to foreign policies.  

Germany finally attained colonies in two waves. The first was in 1884/1885 after the Berlin Conference when European states divided Africa in a way that can still be seen in the rather straight borders of today’s Africa. Germany then acquired German South-West Africa (today Namibia), Cameroon, Togo, German East Africa (today Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi) and parts of Papua-New Guinea. The second wave of acquisitions took place in 1898/99 after the power shift in 1888 as the more imperialistic Kaiser Wilhelm II took over. At this time, Germany also acquired colonies throughout the Pacific Islands. This paper will focus only on the African colonies, without intending to create a hierarchy of colonial importance. By 1914, the area of the German colonies was four and a half times bigger than Germany. Due to the Versailles Treaty, Germany lost all its colonies after the First World War. Apart from Namibia, where half of the settlers could stay (about 7,000), all Germans had to leave the former colonies. 

It should be noted that Namibia, or formerly German South-West Africa, has to be seen as an exception to the other German colonies because it was the only African colony where Germans settled in relatively large numbers, totally about 15,000 by 1914. This also happened to a lesser degree in German East Africa. It is mostly due to the fact that West Africa, including Cameroon and Togo, was seen as “white men’s grave”  since many Europeans died as a result of the regional diseases and the harsh climate. These colonies were mainly used as plantation colonies and for trade. 

While there is much more to the details of the history of German colonization that a paper of this length cannot address, the authors find it relevant for the current discussions to include a brief note about the violence, revolts, and otherwise inhumane practices that occurred during this time. 

The establishment of the new government, rules, and laws in all colonies was strongly connected with violent practices. The Africans were suppressed and in many instances subjected to forced labor, especially on the caoutchouc (rubber) and cotton plantations. Many of their cultural and religious practices were forbidden. White Europeans often abused African women. For this and many other reasons, rebellions and revolts arose in all colonies. Throughout the entire colonial time, local revolts took place, especially in Cameroon, German South-West Africa and German East Africa. Two big rebellions in German South-West Africa and German East Africa ended in colonial wars. The first was the Herero Rebellion in German South-West Africa when 40,000-100,000 were murdered, and then the Maji-Maji Rebellion in German East Africa which resulted in the deaths, possibly murder, of 80,000-300,000 . We focus in this report on the Herero Rebellion, given the amount of information available and the fact that it is the central focus of much of the current discourse involving German colonialism. 

The Herero revolt began on January 12, 1904 as an unexpected revolt of the suppressed tribe killed 123 German settlers in the first few days. The violence derived from many sources: the 1897 cow plague and malaria epidemic in 1897; political and social discrimination; the lack of legal rights; the abuse of women; and the failure to be paid for working for white settlers. When German soldiers in the area were unable to handle the situation, the German government sent more troops. The original German commander of the military effort was replaced with General Lothar von Trotha, who was known for his brutality in suppressing a revolt in the Chinese colony in 1900. 

On August 11, 1904, the revolt led to a decisive battle on the Waterberg where the Herero had assembled. The surviving Herero of this battle fled into the Omaheke Desert. Lothar von Trotha quickly decided to block passage to the desert. Many Herero died of starvation and dehydration. Von Trotha issued a proclamation on October 2nd that many believe to be an official call for genocide: “Inside German territory every Herero tribesman, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer give shelter to women and children, I will drive them back to their people or have them shot.” . Everyone in the territory was to be either killed or driven away to his or her certain death in the Omaheke Desert. The historian Joachim Zeller states that most historians today agree that this constituted genocide since there was a clear intention to kill all the members of the tribe, even women and children. 

After von Trotha’s genocide order, the Nama, another tribe, started a revolt in October 1904. Because of their guerilla tactics it was not easy to fight them. The colonial war lasted officially until 1907, but naturally the fighting did not stop at that time. From 1905 on, the Germans established so-called “concentration camps” in Namibia for all surviving Herero and Nama. Although they were not elimination camps, many Herero and Nama died there because of the harsh conditions. Of an estimated 40,000-100,000 Herero population before the war, only 15,130 survived by 1911, of an estimated 20,000 Nama there were only 9,781 survivors.  

Why has It not been Spoken About?

Considering these events, one might raise the question: Why has this past never been widely spoken about? The authors think there are numerous perspectives and reasons for why Germany’s colonial past has not been discussed for so long although there are people who have attempted to bring this issue into public discourse. 

According to Joachim Zeller, after the First World War people who spoke about the colonies were mostly of the opinion that Germany should get them back.  Eventually many of them pinned their hopes on Hitler. But as we know today the plans to enlarge Germany primarily concerned the annexation of Eastern Europe. Reconquering the former colonies was never a special priority on Hitler’s agenda. After the Second World War, many people avoided speaking about the past. During this time of silence when many of the German population could not face the immediate horrors of the past, it is not surprising that they also were not ready to deal with the horrors of the colonial past. After more than 20 years of ignoring the Nazi past, the German public began slowly to come to terms with it. The discourse about German history is still dominated by the discussions about the Holocaust. Another factor is that the Holocaust took place on German soil and in neighboring occupied countries, whereas the colonial crimes were committed far away in Africa. This history makes it easier to avoid Germany’s history of colonialism.

Also, the nature of German colonization plays a role in answering this question. After the First World War, Germany was forced to retreat from its colonies as specified in the Treaty of Versailles. Germany did not experience the often-painful process of decolonization and the wars associated with it. These areas were then colonized by different European powers which faced periods of violent decolonization. These people were then required to speak the language of their new colonizers, which is still spoken today. Moreover today there is no German presence in the former colonies because after the First World War all Germans had to leave the colonized areas except for 7,000 of the approximately 15,000 settlers in Namibia. Today, a white German minority of about 20,000 people populates Namibia. German landmarks in other former colonies are structural such as railways, streets or buildings. 

For these many reasons, there has not been a large African Diaspora living in Germany. The lack of an African presence in Germany means that Germans are not confronted with this history every day, as is the case in France or The Netherlands. Nevertheless, during the colonial period, individuals opposed the ideology of colonization. When the facts became known about the German treatment in the colonies, people demonstrated against the brutality with limited success. More recently, people have fought to convince the public of the need to make amends with this past. According to the sociologist and historian Reinhart Kößler, since the 1970s, there have been initiatives to rename streets that had been named after various colonial generals and to abolish memorials that commemorated the “great” colonial past.

Why is the colonial past not widely known?

While most German citizens do know that Germany had colonies in Africa, the majority does not know much more than that. The main reason for this is the curriculum of the German educational system. History classes do not give much attention to studying the colonial past of Germany. It is sparsely mentioned in history books. This lack of attention in schools implies that this is not an important period in German history. This also feeds the general opinion that German colonial history was only a short period, long ago, and not worth studying. The overall lack of knowledge is also connected to a general ignorance towards Africa in Germany and major parts of the world. The worldwide lack of concern about Africa is revealed through the relatively small media coverage of the area, except in time of major social upheaval.

Why is it important to speak about it?

The general opinion described above that Germany’s colonial past was short and long ago is easily countered. German merchants and missionaries went to places all over the world long before they had the first colonies and settled in the areas that were later to become official colonies. While there were only about 35 years of officially documented colonization, Germans played a role in these areas many years before. Nevertheless, one should consider what was done as more important than how long they were there. While individual Germans may not have been heavily impacted by this era, the lives of the colonial peoples were forever changed. Several of today’s problems are rooted in the events that took place during this time. 

The period of German colonization also plays a larger role in shaping German history than some might think. Today, there is a controversial debate concerning the possible parallels among the events of the colonial period and the Holocaust. Some historians argue that there may be a connection between the racial ideologies expressed at each of these times. Also, as has been revealed, the first concentration camps existed not in Europe but in Africa. Whether or not this fact has more than a coincidental relationship with the European concentration camps of the Second World War, is part of the debate. 

What are the parameters of the current conversations concerning German colonialism?

As has previously been stated, public discourse about this topic was jumpstarted in January 2004 with the commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the beginning of the Herero rebellion. Most of the major media outlets reported on this issue, especially focusing on the current demands of the Herero descendants. They are asking for an official apology from the German government as well as financial compensation. These descendants of the Herero survivors filed a lawsuit in the United States. courts against both private German companies and the German government. According to Israel Kaunatjike, a representative for the Herero, while the accusers have withdrawn their suit against the German government “for strategic reasons,” they are still pursuing the private companies. 

In light of the 100th anniversary, the SPD (Social Democratic Party) and the Greens proposed a resolution entitled “To the Commemoration of the Victims of the Colonial War in Former German South-West Africa,” which was debated in the Bundestag on June 17, 2004. There are no new proposals in this resolution, but simply a call to confirm the resolution from 1989 that declared a special German responsibility to Namibia as a result of the common history and a desire to establish a special economic, political, and cultural relationship. In the debate on June 17, politicians of all parties confirmed that they have reached their aims laid out in 1989. Ulrich Heinrich from the FDP (Free Democratic Party) mentioned that Namibia received more German development aid than any other country totalling about 500 million Euros through 2003. However, the debate did not produce an apology or any financial compensation. On the contrary, Hans Büttner from the SPD claimed that the German government should not respond to single groups but help Namibian society as a whole. This implies that Germany should not respond to the demands of the Herero. 

It is clear that not all politicians had the same opinion about this subject, but no one clearly stated what he or she would like to do about it other than maintain the status quo. However, all seemed to agree that the Herero victims were commemorated simply by having this debate as well as the need to reinforce relations with Namibia. The resolution was finally passed with support from the Greens. The SPD and CDU abstained.

Joschka Fischer pointed out in October 2003 in Windhoek, Namibia that the lawsuits are the main reason why German politicians do not want to apologize. He claims that Germans are not “hostages of their history”.  The historian Joachim Zeller believes that this statement would have been a worldwide scandal if made in reference to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but no one cares since the issue concerns Africa. The Namibian minister for Foreign Affairs, Theo-Ben Gurirab, has pointed out that it is racist when the German government apologizes for the crimes committed concerning Jews, Poland and Russia, but not for the colonial crimes in Africa, because the only difference is that they are black. 

There are also several activist groups not specifically associated with Herero descendants who are criticizing the government’s response and offering their own resolutions to the question of how to commemorate Germany’s colonial past. On June 25, 2004, The Global African Congress, Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte (International League for Human Rights), and the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Threatened People) held a press conference and demonstrated afterwards in front of the central commemoration place of Germany, Neue Wache, in Berlin. They focused not only on the concrete demand for a commemoration plaque for the victims of German colonialism but on the demand to make the colonial history a public topic, eliminate and post-colonial structures and pay reparations. According to the press release, colonial crimes should not be a taboo any longer. The resolution, which specifically refrains from using the word “genocide,” also lacks an official apology for this particular crime. A panel discussion also took place that evening with speakers from nine different countries, all of African descent and active in the Global African Congress network. These speakers approached the topic of European colonization of Africa, its effects, and how to rectify the situation. One speaker, Cikiah Thomas, believes that the crimes committed against the African people are not being properly recognized, if at all, and that the problems facing people of African descent today are directly linked to colonialism and the slave trade. Thus those who benefited from such practices now have the responsibility to make amends with both moral and monetary reparations.

Another association that deals with these issues is the Anticolonial Africa Conference Berlin 2004. They identify several demands in their mission statement, among which are the following: end all wars; break open colonial mentalities; “all signature countries of the Berlin Africa Conference of 1884 take political responsibility for the consequences of their colonial policy in Africa”; abolish all racist laws; immediate debt relief; no racial-biological research; and seek and find a compromise concerning the numerous pieces of art and culture that were robbed from the African continent. One man involved with the organization, Christopher Nsoh, said, “We really have to fight against the domination of one culture over another.” He said to achieve this, the Berlin Conference signatories must give monetary reparations in the form of infrastructure and that all levels of society (top=politicians and military, medium=NGOs and intellectuals, and grassroots) should work together so that all will share the benefits. 

What should be changed?

The issue of colonization is undeniably connected to the issues of racism, migration, immigration, economics, and politics. Colonialism continues today in several forms. Current race relations are rooted in this history. Thus, one cannot understand the situation of today without understanding the past. Along these same lines, one cannot solve the current racial inequalities or better race relations without this knowledge. 

The authors think that the German government should issue an official apology. Public acknowledgment of the historical facts would lead to a general awareness of the colonial past. The Herero representative Israel Kaunatjike would like to see a gesture similar to that of Willy Brandt apologetically falling on his knees in Warsaw. Along with this gesture there should be at least one memorial commemorating all victims of German colonization, not only the Herero and Nama. The recognition of these victims should moreover be incorporated into currently existing symbols such as the central commemoration place of Germany, Neue Wache, in Berlin. This history should be detailed in a museum format with a permanent exhibition site as well as both informational and educational outreach programs.

The colonial past should also become mandatory in the curriculum in every school throughout Germany and given an appropriate amount attention. It would be ideal if all the history books would be changed to present information on the colonial past, but since this is a time consuming and expensive project, it would be a first step to use supplementary materials. It should also be noted and widely accepted that “development” aid is not and never will be acceptable as a substitute for proper reparations. We think monetary reparations should be given to a newly formed foundation that would deal specifically with the problems facing those in the former colonies. Moral reparations are also necessary.

We also think it is important that individuals with an interest in this subject take on the responsibility of creating and spreading public awareness in whatever form they feel is appropriate. For example, the director Martin Baer is directing a film about the Herero Rebellion and how Germans and Hereros deal with their shared colonial past. He proposed his idea of making a film about this issue to the French-German TV-channel, Arte, two years ago because he, as a filmmaker, feels a responsibility to inform the public about these important themes.  

In light of recent events and increased discussion, is the public now interested in Germany’s colonial past, and will there be a continued shift towards awareness of this topic? The authors optimistically affirm these questions, although Joachim Zeller and Reinhart Kößler, have a more pessimistic view and believe in an only short-term interest caused by the two anniversaries this year. But there is, for example, an exhibition about the common history concerning Namibia and Germany which is called “Namibia – Germany: A Divided History” in the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne. Larissa Förster, one of the organizers of this exhibition, is surprised by its success and the high volume of visitors. School classes turn up in large numbers. Another example is the monthly, often overbooked “Anticolonial City Tour” offered by the Anticolonial African Conference Berlin, 2004. This tour reveals relics of German colonialism in Berlin that still can be seen today.  These examples show that public interest and the wish to know more about the colonial past definitely exist in Germany. But it is still necessary to spread more information and create a bigger public awareness towards this issue.

With this article, the authors hope to have contributed to this work to a certain extent, even if it is only in a rather small way. We met many ambitious people in the process, for whom this issue is so fundamental to their current situation, which goes to show that only by knowing the past in the sense of analyzing social, political, and economic mechanisms, one can explain present conditions and work on agendas for the future, agendas which in this case are striving for justice and equality. 



Gründer, Horst: Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag, 2004).

Zimmerer, Jürgen and Joachim Zeller (eds.): Völkermord in Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Der Kolonialkrieg (1904-1908) in Namibia und seine Folgen (Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2003).

Protocol of the 114th session of the German Bundestag on June 17, 2004 and the discussed application “To the Commemoration of the Victims of the Colonial War in Former German South-West Africa” by the SPD and the Green Party. (Antrag: “Zum Gedenken an die Opfer des Kolonialkrieges im damaligen Deutsch-Südwestafrika”)


Zimmerer, Jürgen: Keine Geiseln der Geschichte. Deutsche Kolonialherrschaft ist bloß eine Episode, denken viele. Das Dritte Reich sagt: Dauer sagt nichts über Intensität, in: die tageszeitung, January 10, 2004.





Interview Partner

Martin Baer, film director, currently doing a movie on the Herero and the former colony German South-West Africa. (June 29, 2004)

Ulrich Delius, Africa Desk of the Society for Threatened People. (June 25, 2004)

Larissa Förster, one of the organizers of the exhibition “Namibia – Germany. A Divided History” in the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne. (June 29, 2004)

Israel Kaunatjike, representative of the Herero in Berlin (June 30, 2004)

Reinhart Kößler, sociology professor in Münster, speaker on the conference in Münster “Postcolonialism and commemoration culture”. (June 29, 2004) 

Christopher Nsoh, member of the Anticolonial Africa Conference Berlin 2004. (June 29, 2004)

Joachim Zeller, Historian (June 28, 2004) 

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