»Chancellor Adenauer himself clearly says that it is necessary to turn the page of this sad chapter. This trial would be poison«.
»Rather, it is that silence, the poison. A poison of our democracy«.dialogue from »The People vs. Fritz Bauer«
Among all the Western countries, France remains a curious case. Unrepentant with regard to its colonial past; it also keeps its former African colonies in neocolonial subjection, through the easement of a monetary system that it controls and the training of the so-called national armies – while in reality they’re dedicated to the repression of the populations led by dictatorial powers.
A situation of unrepentance that sufficiently explains the release of the former Prime Minister Francois Fillon last August: »No, France is not guilty of having wanted to share its culture with the peoples of Africa, Asia and North America,« he said about the teaching of colonization. He goes further by simply asking for the revision of history textbooks – based on the idea that they must teach the greatness of France and delete everything questioning the past.
Why, today, does one have to raise the question of knowledge of the colonial past in the West? Because there is an honest story deficit of the story of colonial violence.
It is this French deficit that urges me to take a look at the situation with Germany, the former colonial power of Togo.
Amputated Memory, Hidden Past
My memory is amputated. My father had a very basic education. Wanting his children to carry out his failed dreams, he showered me with a library of odds and ends, especially the books of Sékou Touré, the hero of the independence of Guinea. Punished by General Charles de Gaulle for daring to demand independence, hounded everywhere by the plots sponsored by France, Sékou Touré, the Communist, had molted into a paranoid tyrant who turned his country into a gulag for every citizen suspected of being the fifth column of French imperialism.
I subscribed to his indigestible literature of communist philosophy, not even sixth form level philosophy until the day by serendipity I came across The South West Africa Under German Colonial Rule: the Fight of the Hereros and Namas against German Imperialism (1884-1915). The front cover was off-white and a pretty bland ugliness as if East Germany, impoverished by communism did not know how to make beautiful books.
»If the West was horrified by the Nazi barbarism it is because it was perpetrated against white people. The same atrocities practiced by the colonial troops on the populations of the Third World fell within the range of normalcy.«Tony Feda
However, the book of the East German historian Horst Drechsler was excellently documented. He therein approached the extermination of some nations, the Hereros and Namas, inhabitants of the German colony then known as South West Africa. The description of the atrocities were a shock to me. As an average good Togolese national (citizen), I sympathized with Germany – first colonizer of Togo that would have made my country a Münsterkolonie – and viscerally felt a hatred for France – considered Togo’s gravedigger. France was involved in the assassination of the first President of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, who was replaced by Etienne Eyadéma – a roughneck soldier of the colonial army, and a colossal illiterate.
I was shocked upon discovering the Herero genocide. My shock didn’t just come from my love for Germany, but stemmed from what Aimé Césaire wrote about World War II: if the West was horrified by the Nazi barbarism it is because it was perpetrated against white people. The same atrocities practiced by the colonial troops on the populations of the Third World fell within the range of normalcy. These mass and war crimes had existed in Africa three decades before the Second World War, the only difference was that there was a conspiracy of silence around these crimes when perpetrated in Africa.
»Horst Drechsler served as a working memory, but, at the same time, around me me I see an oversight: the people never interrogate their past. It’s a bit like family black secrets – those scandals known by some, but kept silent to protect the idealized image of the family.«.Tony Feda
I sympathized with this East German who became my hero; his courage was a model to follow. The reasons for his book are unknown to me, but, out of the blue, his concern for the triumph of truth, to say exactly »what is«, to stir the consciences asleep on the history comfort me; he dared writing against his country. Not only did he pickle my love for Germany, but he opened my eyes on the history with a capital H, the one written by the nations and which rested on lies, massacres under the guise of civilizing mission.
Horst Drechsler served as a working memory, but, at the same time, around me me I see an oversight: the people never interrogate their past. It’s a bit like family black secrets – those scandals known by some, but kept silent to protect the idealized image of the family. While Africa and its diaspora strive to denounce slavery, and demand reparations, deafening are the silence and oversight that cleanse the consciences of Africans concerning the African involvement in the most shameful trade. Aren’t the great royal families of the Coast of the Slaves (the Gulf of Guinea), the middle-class families of modern Africa, the recipients of what is called moderately the Atlantic slave trade? What about the silence of Muslim countries in Africa on the long history of the trans-Saharan slave led for thirteen centuries by Arabs? Very little is found in traces in textbooks.
Africans Never Work about Their Past Violences
In Togo, for example, one still teaches children in colleges the positive aspects of slavery and colonization! This reveals that African, especially that in the French-speaking countries, has only vague knowledge of his history, a blunted consciousness of the issues.
Slaves, the novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem, outlines the madness that gripped the nations of the Slave Coast – where everyone was selling everyone, where the King of Abomey wrote to Queen Victoria to complain about the abolition of the slave trade; the budget of his kingdom had been in the red since England outlawed slave trading. The novelist mainly reported the discomfort of a king of Abomey, Adandozan who »saw, very young, the most human subjects of his kingdom being turned into scoundrels, in wild animals capable of traveling for kilometers in the bush to raid men and women in the neighboring tribes, to deliver them to the English slave traders, Portuguese and French or sell their own parents when they had no slaves to deliver«. (p.55)
But how many in Africa have read this book? Which public does it interest? Besides being grieved, the novelist felt a certain pride in the fact of writing: “we write in vain, we are not read,” said the Guinean writer Willam Sassine.
While it was expected that the Middle-class Afro-Brazilian of Togo or the royal family of Abomey in Benin – accused of being involved in slavery – would institute proceedings, there has been nothing but silence till now: the novel whose literary quality is undeniable hardly interested anyone.
How to Reinvent Memory?
In The Book of Sand, Jorge Luis Borges wrote that »forgetfulness and memory are also inventive.« It’s hard to know what is slavery’s place in the memory of Africans. Forgetfulness settled in, without one really knowing what was invented instead, in order to counter the risk of eternally harping on the past like a nervous tic. Slavery is still practiced in Mauritania by Arabic-speaking Moorish populations on the black populations. The opponents of the operating system are imprisoned by the pseudo-democratic regime of Nouakchott. The African Union, the largest pan-African institution whose stated goal is the creation of the United States of Africa, never denounced or fought slavery in Mauritania. Such deadlock on the past, on the memories, is staggering.
»Forgetfulness settled in, without one really knowing what was invented instead, in order to counter the risk of eternally harping on the past like a nervous tic.«Tony Feda
Other example: in the mid-1930s, more than a decade after the end of the German colonization, when Hitler came to power, the Togolese came together in the Deutsche Togobund to call for the return of Germany as a colonizer. Nazi blacks in Africa at the very moment when ex-colonial Africans were herded into concentration camps in Germany, who would have thought? Yet in a monumental book on Togo, East German historian Peter Sebald tells us that German colonization in Togo is based on a system of repression, and has created more prisons than schools. How then can one understand the attitude of Togolese about Deutsche Togobund?
It was therefore with surprise that, while going through the newspaper Le Monde of July 13th, I came across an article about the likely recognition of the genocide of the Herero and Nama by Germany. At a time where the stench of the history of European states goes up, assertion of one’s identity, racism, xenophobia, islamophobia, denial of the colonial past, Germany seems, for the moment, as a quiet vessel in the midst of the storm. Its government announced that it will, by the end of 2016, make the official recognition of the genocide of the Hereros and Namas in Namibia.
Without bothering anybody, negotiations between the Namibian and German governments have quickly progressed to find the suitable »terms« for such an event.
This recognition was not easy; and this is hardly a mere act of contrition that the German government accepts to reopen this dark chapter of colonial history. For it has attempted to erase the memory of this first genocide of the twentieth century.
»Another thing, the new generation of German leaders, not at all responsible for these crimes did not want to assume responsibility while Germany already drags the heavy legacy of the Holocaust«.Tony Feda
First, in the past, the so-called Social Democrat Republic of Weimar that took over the Wilhelminian Empire played a political trick. In 1926, under the threat to publish a »White Book« – detailed report of abuses by England in its colonies – the Weimar Republic put pressure on the British government to remove the »Blue Book«, the report by a young Irish judge on the atrocities committed by the German colonial troops in the South West Africa. All copies of the famous Blue Book were destroyed except for one found in a South African library.
Published during the Cold War, the works of Horst Drechsler went unnoticed because the author seemed to blame West Germany as inheritor of the past, despite the fact that East Berlin was accountable just like West Berlin for the legacy of the Second Reich.
Another thing, the new generation of German leaders, not at all responsible for these crimes did not want to assume responsibility while Germany already drags the heavy legacy of the Holocaust. Besides, has the emasculation of Germany after the Second World War, its vassalage with respect to the Allied Powers, and the fate of Nazism in Nuremberg contributed to an official recognition of Nazism? The movie, The People vs. Fritz Bauer demonstrates quite well that the government of Adenauer never wanted to go far towards total denazification.
Germany of the twenty-first century, having regained her composure, could cynically refuse to accept moral responsibility for the massacres of Namibia. Reasons abound. First of all, and by way of colonial violence, Germany is not the only country to commit these kinds of atrocities. The government of Belgium has never been questioned, perhaps for legal reasons, as liable for the largest mass murder committed during the colonial era in Africa. The amount of time elapsed, over a century after the events, could also be mentioned. But what is a century in the memory of men?
It is pushed to the limit by media hypes of the descendants of genocide survivors, some excellent booster shots that threaten to bring the case to court, and the pressures of the German radical left, which resulted in the unwilling Federal state bringing the German leaders to book.
Nazi Testing Ground
And for good reason. Symbolically, the genocide of the Hereros and Namas was the draft for what Nazi Germany later undertook on a devilishly industrial scale against the Jews and Gypsies in Europe: similar racial obsessions, first experiments with pseudo genetic aims, concentration camps, and people who, having begun their careers in the colony, will find themselves as prominent leaders in the Nazi system.
Examples: the Governor of the South West German Africa was Heinrich Goering, the father of Hermann Goering, right hand of Adolf Hitler; and Dr. Eugen Fischer, who had Doctor Mengele as his assistant, made experiments on the bodies of hanged Hereros – sending thousands of human skulls at the Charity Hospital of Berlin and in German universities. Result: of the 80,000 Hereros, only 15,000 survived the »Vernichtungsbefehl« (extermination order) of Emperor Guillaume II – a »war of civilization« as declared by General Lothar von Trotha.
According to the press, the recognition of the genocide by the German government is not going to come along with reparations. Germany will only make an official apology, and allow the return of hundreds of Herero skulls.
The German position regarding the rejection of financial repairs may be explained not only by the amount of time that’s passed – the Merkel government is in no way responsible over a century after the events – but the danger to make a commitment in negotiations that would definitely amount to millions or even billions of Euros. Huge sums whose shares could raise legal issues as was the case, for example, for the return of indigenous remains of Australia.
But Can’t Germany Go Beyond?
It is important to analyze the havoc colonization wrought on the mentality of the colonized. What can we learn from the causes, processes and consequences of massive political violence and genocide in relation to transitional justice mechanisms?
Namibia is symbolic of the direct consequences of colonization in the development of a modern African state; especially as it remains a special case in English-speaking Africa where one wonders if colonization has actually ended. This country got its independence in 1990 in difficult conditions where the reports were unfavorable to the freedom fighters.
»The Namibian filmmaker and writer John Katjavivi Perivi reported in Okayafrica how it is still impossible for Namibians to enter European bars and restaurants. As a symbolic occurrence of this incredible social situation: during the victory of Germany in the final of the 2014 World Cup, these ex-Germans go out by cars to shout, ›Now we have become a nation!‹«.Tony Feda
The German minority, 1% of the population, inherited more than 100% of the privileges accumulated over more than a century; keeping its omnipotence through a corrupt black government which it uses to strengthen the white minority privileges while the rest of the people vegetate in crass misery. Hereros still live in arid and inhospitable reserves, while the descendants of settlers occupy their lands, always thinking they can lord it over everyone. The Hereros are brought onto their ancestral lands where they provide cheap labor for the descendants of settlers who forget that they are today Namibians. The Namibian filmmaker and writer John Katjavivi Perivi reported in Okayafrica how it is still impossible for Namibians to enter European bars and restaurants. As a symbolic occurrence of this incredible social situation: during the victory of Germany in the final of the 2014 World Cup, these ex-Germans go out by cars to shout, »Now we have become a nation!« To this day, the safer places to live in Namibia are held by ex-German owners where blacks have no right to enter. Why not ruminate the past before such injustice?
What is the place of memory in the consciousness of the descendants of the Herero and Nama in such a situation?
More Than a Moral Debt for Germany
In light of these conditions created in the past, denying Namibians reparations is somewhat similar to a peace imposed by Germany. It’s reminiscent of the situation of over a century ago when Lothar Von Trotha was pacifying Namibia by sentencing the Hereros to humiliation and unquestionable death.
In Burden of Memory, precisely speaking of the violence that marred the past, the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka appealed to a revival in the idea that it’s in what lies beyond justice and official recognition that creates healing and reconciliation among peoples. The descendants of settlers cannot continue to live in opulence and forget that they are the heirs of ill-gotten properties. It would be necessary, in the sense of Soyinka, to »find answers to achieve the three essential objectives for a semblance of peace to prevail in this twenty-first century multicultural: the establishment of the Truth, Reparation and Reconciliation.«
Germany has a moral debt with regard to Namibia. They can’t treat as secondary, the aftermaths of colonialism in the present situation of Namibia.
Photocollages by Saadia Mirza