The Humboldt Forum, restorations, reparations, a return to the history wars: German colonial history is once again the focus of serious historical and political debates. It even plays a not inessential, if not always openly discussed, role in discussions about how authoritarian or democratic the German Reich was. Even more astonishing is how superficially German colonial rule in Namibia, Cameroon, Rwanda, Togo, Tanzania, Qingdao and areas of the South Pacific and Papua New Guinea continues to be treated, and the extent to which it is reduced to a few particular events.
Robert Heinze is a researcher in the Africa department oft he German Historical Institut in Paris. He conducts research on African contemporary history with a focus on Media and the History of Technology. His current project examines the history of informal economies in African cities, with a focus on transportation.
Translated by Eve Richens and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
In terms of brutality and exploitation, German colonialism is equal to that of counties like France, England, and Belgium. Furthermore, now that the state has admitted responsibility for the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, one could say Germany is responsible for some of the most notorious and brutal examples of colonial violence. While there is a consensus on the violence of German colonial history in some circles, far too little is said about how strongly daily life as a colonial subject, regardless of which colonial empire one lived under, was marked by contempt for one’s culture, political and social discrimination, structural and physical violence, and how profound the effects of this violence have been on societies in the Global South up until today.
At the same time, a new kind of colonial revisionism is developing in the wake of these discussions, one that is in part linked to international right-wing discourse and that is being particularly cultivated by Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). While an open apologia for colonialism is not a central theme of the party, it is invoked by prominent executive members and connects to some of its central concerns, especially in relation to migration, development, and foreign policy. In addition, the party participates in a global discourse, which also serves to integrate it into the extreme right’s international networks. With the potential of obtaining millions or more in state funding, which the AfD-affiliated Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung will use for what they consider to be research and educational work, this new colonial revisionism could also end up receiving more attention in the public sphere.
Pioneers of Colonial Revisionism
In December 2019, the wider public was confronted by the AfD’s colonial revisionism when media outlets reported on the presence of US political scientist Bruce Gilley in the AfD’s offices in the German Bundestag. Gilley was at this time a prominent member and representative of a group of British and American professors claiming to defend a supposedly “objective” view on colonialism against what they perceive to be the anti-colonial academic “mainstream”. In 2017, despite two rounds of negative peer review, Gilley successfully placed an article in the academic journal Third World Quarterly. Under the programmatic title “The Case for Colonialism”, Gilley not only argued that colonized peoples had profited from colonization, but also openly advocated for new forms of colonialism and for the advancement of the West’s “civilizing mission”. In a speech to AfD representatives in 2019, Gilley went a step further, pointing out that German colonialism was particularly successful and had promoted development. Gilley has since developed these claims further and published them in a book issued by prominent right-wing publisher Manuscriptum.
On the day of Gilley’s lecture, the parliamentary group of the AfD in the German parliament, the Bundestag, tabled a motion entitled “Rethinking German Colonial History in a Cultural-Politically Sophisticated Way”.Like Gilly’s speech, the AfD’s motion can be considered to programmatically represent the party’s current approach to colonial history and the politics of remembrance. Both texts employ similar tropes and argumentative strategies.
The AfD is thus adopting the tropes and arguments of a small but not insignificant and sometimes publicly effective current of contemporary colonial revisionism. Gilley is not the only prominent academic to argue for a supposedly objective and “more balanced” view of colonial history. The Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar also advocates for this with his project Ethics and Empire, which has attracted a lot of attention in recent years. Similarly, Egon Flaig, a German Emeritus Professor of Ancient History, promotes a discourse that not only downplays the violence of colonialism, but also argues that it was a positive developmental project similar in spirit to the Enlightenment. The AfD makes use of these works—it has even invited both Gilley and Flaig to cooperate with them on various occasions, most recently as experts for the Bundestag’s Committee on Culture and Media.
Tropes of the Colonial Revisionist Discourse
Many of the tropes in this discourse are similar, and are repeatedly taken up and reworked by different people. Some take up much older colonial revisionist discourses. Gilley in particular makes the adoption of such ideas totally explicit, by making positive reference to prominent representatives of colonial revisionism from the Weimar Republic such as Heinrich Schnee. This approach is similar to other references to reactionary tendencies from the Weimar Republic, especially the New Right’s predilection for evoking the so-called “conservative revolution”.
The tropes invoked in the colonial revisionist discourse can be divided into three categories. Firstly, the idea that colonialism is a legitimate project, often with recourse to colonial propaganda. This also includes the justification that the colonial project is anti-slavery, references to the “civilizing mission” and to the colonial revisionist propaganda of the Weimar Republic. For example, authors like Gilley and Björn Höcke invoke the myth of the loyal Askari, African colonial soldiers who fought alongside their German colonial masters in World War I, which they continued to do even after the capitulation of the German Empire—a myth that’s used to claim that German colonial rulers were popular with their African subjects.
Secondly, when it is not denied, colonial violence is underplayed and strongly relativized. In the colonial revisionist account of events, this violence is often limited to the initial phase of conquest, and is a kind that creates order or even legislates. Colonial wars of conquest and counterinsurgency, as well as forced labour, are justified as part of the “civilizing mission”.
Gilley tallied up the Namibian genocide against the total years of German colonial rule, literally asserting that, in terms of the “years of life” of colonized peoples in German South West Africa, German colonial presence only amounted to 2 percent. Gilley rejects the term “genocide” and presents the atrocities as acts perpetrated by a single “war-traumatized outsider”, the Governor and Commander in Chief of German South West Africa, Lothar von Trotha. The authors of the above-mentioned AfD motion claim that after 1907, German rule was maintained without violence and primarily concerned with the peaceful building of schools, medical facilities, and technical infrastructure.
The third and final way in which this revisionist version of colonial history is legitimated is by defending it against overwhelming evidence and historical research. Advocates of revisionism do this by selectively citing current academic research while simultaneously denouncing such research in general as ideologically dominated by “postcolonial” and “cultural Marxist” discourse and so one-sidedly condemning colonialism.Gilley and Höcke take this interpretation a step further and speak respectively of the “lie of colonial guilt” (a reference to the German title of Heinrich Schnee’s revisionist book German Colonialism Past and Future),and a “colonialism club” that they think dominates how colonialism is remembered today.
Colonial Revisionism as the Safeguarding of Nationalist Traditions
This last point makes clear how colonial revisionism serves right-wing interests: Germany’s colonial crimes disrupt a positive relationship to the German Empire and the völkisch (German ethno-nationalist) movement from the time of the Weimar Republic. Such a relationship serves as way of sidestepping actual observations of German history, allowing right-wing thinkers to maintain a reactionary nationalist traditionalist line in public, one which skips over the Holocaust.
It also serves as a means of attacking the politics of history and remembrance in Germany as a whole. In November 2020, in a debate on motions by Bündnis 90/The Greens and the AfD about the restitution of stolen cultural artefacts in the Bundestag, AfD Bundestag member Marc Jongen spoke of a “simplistic guilt narrative in relation to the whole of German history”. This is the “maxim of a green-left politics of remembrance”, in which “all German nationhood and culture necessarily runs back to the Third Reich and its crimes”.
Aside from the tactic of reissuing old colonial propaganda and relating it to contemporary debate, what unites colonial revisionists above all is the attempt to position themselves as fighting for an allegedly “objective” position on colonialism. They claim that the academic mainstream is left-wing and anti-colonial, that it prioritizes its own ideological bias over an interest in historical knowledge. To this they oppose an allegedly objective methodology, which weighs up the “good” and “bad” aspects of colonialism. This “more balanced” view of colonialism is supposedly more complex and sophisticated than a one-sided, moralistic condemnation of colonialism.
In doing so, the colonial revisionists lay claim to a historical methodology that they deny to other historians. They thereby become the ones who argue in mechanistic and moralistic categories (like the “good” and “bad” sides of colonialism) and attempt to impose these categories on the debate.
The “Balance Sheet” Method
The idea of the balance sheet as a method was brought to the fore by historian Niall Ferguson in a 2006 interview with The Guardian, in which he describes his project as an attempt to defend the legacy of the British Empire against what he perceives as a dominant leftist discourse, suggesting: “all I did was to create a balance sheet which showed that some good things emerged alongside the bad”.
Gilley brought this approach directly back with him to Germany, as evidenced by the title for his lecture to the AfD: “The Balance Sheet of German Colonialism”. This framing worked really well for the AfD and suited its understanding of the politics of history. In debates on the teaching of history, the party has also long complained of a supposedly one-sided concentration on the crimes of Nazism, and wants (back then along with its expert authority Egon Flaig) more “positive aspects” of German history to be taken into account in the politics of remembrance. In a December 2019 motion, the AfD called for “the productive aspects of the German colonial period” to be integrated into Germany’s politics of remembrance by means of a dedicated federal foundation, opposing the “cultural Marxist” inspired “normative interpretation of the past” in the manner of Biggar with a “sophisticated” rehabilitation.
The problematic nature of the “balance sheet” approach to debating questions of colonial violence and how best to commemorate it, is revealed in the reaction to the colonial revisionism described above. For it is not enough to simply answer relativizing, apologias, and revisionism by emphasizing solely the “bad” sides of colonialism. This is actually what happens in some contemporary debates.
Responding to discussions about the question of a “more positive” revaluation of the Empire, historian Claudia Gatzka criticized a “tendency toward chiaroscuro”—the contrast of light and dark—on both sides of the debate. In the field of history, it is considered methodologically unsatisfactory to evaluate “The German Reich” as a whole. However, in public debate, even experienced historians, who are perceived as experts in their fields, fall back on such evaluations, and this also happens in debates about colonial history. In a review of Priya Satia’s book Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, historian Kim Wagner explains the problem, stating: “This critique simply tallies the balance-sheet differently, with imperialism coming up short, but does not ultimately challenge the basic premise of historical judgement.”
Satia locates the origins of the “balance sheet” approach in the enlightenment historiography of the nineteenth century. This approach made a significant contribution to imperial conquest by providing the imperialists with a moral lens through which to understand their actions as forming part of a greater good. Enlightenment ideas of linear time, progress, and history as an inherently moral force pressing irresistibly onwards, formed the foundations of the “liberal empire”. In this narrative, war, famine, and massacres are the “collateral damage” of history. In light of this, the problem of “balancing the books” becomes apparent: everything on the “bad” side is not simply overcome by what is on the “good” side. They were rather the necessary side effects of the “good” work of the civilizing mission, the elimination of slavery, the building of rail networks, and the introduction of the rule of law. In the eyes of Ferguson and Biggar, the “bottom line” is that history has proved the colonizers right.
Accordingly, it is not very productive to respond to the historical accountants with treatises on the violence of colonial conquest and rule, especially as the latter often make the mistake of putting extreme events at the centre of the analysis, leaving out the everyday violence and humiliation inflicted on colonized peoples and the socially destructive effects of colonization that go on long after the often relatively brief moment of direct colonial intervention. Beyond single and even extremely violent events, colonial rule was inherently violent, as it destabilized and upended African societies, and restructured their institutions in lasting ways. The process of colonization itself created ripple effects which, as Jan Vansina has suggested, also exposed societies beyond the colonial sphere of influence to its violence.
Furthermore, many works make explicit the violence and humiliation present in everyday colonial life. Additionally, numerous works have made clear to what extent everyday life under colonialism was marked by humiliation and violence. Even in many regions where colonial rule was weak, it still had a profound political and social impact. As Mahmood Mamdani demonstrates in Citizen and Subject, which has since become a classic, the political institutions of the colonial state itself were characterized by racial segregation and a “decentralized despotism”. The unequal position in which colonialism placed African nations as it integrated them into the capitalist world system has been illustrated by Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, and many others. It is not just that some of the effects of colonialism made it into an unjust system, colonialism itself was an unjust system.
The “method” of balancing the books first forces its opponents into a moralizing and mechanistic way of seeing things, in order to then project that way of seeing onto them and present itself as “objective”. However, the temptation of “chiaroscuro” must be resisted, including and especially in public debate. Insisting on the complexity of the profoundly complex history of the colonization large swathes of the world by European powers should not lead to banal diagnoses of “ambivalence”, which relativistically take note of “light and dark” sides.
Instead of this, it is important to focus on the complexity and contradictory nature of both the colonial experience and the reactions to it. In order to be able to do this in public debates about history, empirical detail and precision are necessary. There is no meaningful historical assessment of “colonialism” as a whole.Nonetheless, the fundamental insight remains that colonialism was first and foremost, economically, a relationship of exploitation, which, culturally and socially, resulted in the massive upheaval of social structures, a process that marks African societies to this day.
Abermeth, Katharina, Heinrich Schnee: Karrierewege und Erfahrungswelten eines deutschen Kolonialbeamten, Kiel: Solivagus-Verlag, 2017.
AfD, “Die deutsche Kolonialzeit kulturpolitisch differenziert aufarbeiten”, AfD parliamentary motion, BT-Drucksache 19/15784 of 11 December 2019, Deutscher Bundestag, available at https://dip.bundestag.de/vorgang/.../256669. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Barth, Boris and Jürgen Osterhammel (eds.), Zivilisierungsmissionen: Imperiale Weltverbesserung seit dem 18. Jahrhundert, Historische Kulturwissenschaften vol. 6, Konstanz: UVK, 2005.
Brodkorb, Matthias, “Er spräche selbst mit dem Teufel”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 April 2021, p. 6.
Crace, John, “Niall Ferguson: Unforgiven, Unrepentant”, The Guardian, 30 May 2006, available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2006/may/30/academicexperts.highereducationprofile. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Deutscher Bundestag, “Plenarprotokoll 19/192“, 19 November 2020, p. 24231, available at https://dserver.bundestag.de/btp/19/19192.pdf. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Deutscher Bundestag, “Restitution von Sammlungsgut aus kolonialem Kontext stoppen”, AfD parliamentary motion, Drucksache 19/19914, p. 4, available at https://dserver.bundestag.de/btd/19/199/1919914.pdf. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Flaig, Egon, Weltgeschichte der Sklaverei, Munich: C.H. Beck, 2018.
Gatzka, Claudia C., “‘Das Kaiserreich’ zwischen Geschichtswissenschaft und Public History”, Merkur 866, 30 June 2021, available at https://www.merkur-zeitschrift.de/2021/06/30/das-kaiserreich-zwischen-geschichtswissenschaft-und-public-history. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Gilley, Bruce, “The case for colonialism”, Third World Quarterly, 8 September 2017, available at www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01436597.2017.1369037. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Gilley, Bruce, “Why the Germans do not have to apologize for the colonial period”, speech in the Bundestag, Deutschland Kurier, 3 December 2019, available at www.web.pdx.edu/~gilleyb/DK_Vortrag%20von%20Kolonialismus-Experten%20im%20Bundestag.pdf. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Gilley, Bruce, Verteidigung des deutschen Kolonialismus, Lüdinghausen: Manuscriptum, 2021.
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Hennig, Sebastian and Björn Höcke, Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss: Björn Höcke im Gespräch mit Sebastian Hennig, Lüdinghausen: Manuscriptum, 2018.
Hunt, Nancy R., A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo, Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
Jongen, Marc, “Die Gedächtnispolitik muss auch positive Aspekte der deutschen Geschichte umfassen” AfD Bundestag, 22 January 2019, available at https://afdbundestag.de/jongen-die-gedaechtnispolitik-muss-auch-positive-aspekte-der-deutschen-geschichte-umfassen/. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Mamdani, Mahmood, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton University Press, 2018.
Satia, Priya, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, London: Allen Lane, 2020.
Vansina, Jan, Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.
Wagner, Kim A., “Review of Priya Satia Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Allen Lane, 2020)”, Medium, 8 February 2021, available at https://kim-ati-wagner.medium.com/?p=d08b965abbb4. Last accessed on 30 September 2021.
Weiß, Volker, Die autoritäre Revolte: Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2017.
 Flaig no longer accepts invitations from the AfD because, in his own words, he rejects the “dominant influence of the Höcke wing” and their ethnopluralist ideas. See Matthias Brodkorb, “Er spräche selbst mit dem Teufel”, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 15 April 2021, p. 6.
 See Volker Weiß, Die autoritäre Revolte: Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2017); Katharina Abermeth, Heinrich Schnee: Karrierewege und Erfahrungswelten eines deutschen Kolonialbeamten (Kiel: Solivagus-Verlag, 2017).
 See Boris Barth and Jürgen Osterhammel (eds.), Zivilisierungsmissionen: Imperiale Weltverbesserung seit dem 18. Jahrhundert, Historische Kulturwissenschaften vol. 6 (Konstanz: UVK, 2005).
 Sebastian Hennig and Björn Höcke, Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss: Björn Höcke im Gespräch mit Sebastian Hennig(Lüdinghausen: Manuscriptum, 2018), pp. 191–2.
 Egon Flaig, Weltgeschichte der Sklaverei (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2018), p. 216.
 Ibid., pp. 213–15.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 Hennig and Höcke, Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss, p. 190.
 See Nancy R. Hunt, A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Jan Vansina, Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).
 Jan Vansina, Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).
 Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton University Press, 2018).