Europe's colonial heritage in Africa: Independence is a question of cooperation


How should Europe deal with its colonial past in Africa? A German-African panel of experts calls for a differentiated, holistic discourse – and resolve.

Report on the Herrenhausen Forum "Europas koloniales Erbe in Afrika" with Dr. Christiane Bürger, Prof. Dr. Andreas Eckert, Prof. Dr. Albert Guaffo, Prof. Dr. Gesine Krüger and René Aguigah (moderator). An event organized by the Volkswagen Foundation in cooperation with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk and held in the Xplanatorium in Herrenhausen Palace on January 28, 2020.

Rene Aguigah auf dem Podium.
René Aguigah from Deutschlandfunk Kultur chaired the event. (Credit: Philip Bartz for the Volkswagen Foundation)

Two continents and one long process

"The Volkswagen Foundation has a strong attachment to the African continent," emphasizes Katja Ebeling. She is Head of Conferences & Symposia at the Volkswagen Foundation, and hosted the first part of the Herrenhausen Forum on the consequences of European colonial rule. Since 2008 the Foundation’s focus has been on the promotion of early career researchers in Africa, says Ebeling. Now the thematic focus is shifting to global challenges – something which of course includes dealing with the consequences of colonial rule. Even decades after the political beginning of decolonization, the old systems of violence and repression continue to have an impact on European and African perspectives. "This topic is wide-ranging in its scope, encompassing two entire continents and four to five centuries of their history," agreed René Aguigah, who moderated the second part of the panel discussion for broadcast on Deutschlandfunk.

Video: Panel discussion (in German only)

Panel discussion "Europas koloniales Erbe in Afrika" (in German only)
Gesine Krüger on the podium
Prof. Dr. Gesine Krüger (Centre), Historisches Seminar, University of Zürich. (Credit: Philip Bartz for the Volkswagen Foundation)

Similarities and differentiations

Instead of "viewing the battlefield from the commander's hill", according to Krüger, it is a matter of devoting more time to African research and not merely looking for quick solutions. Saying goodbye to a scientific universalism could, for example, lead to discovering commonalities that are albeit historically viewed differently on different continents. Many Europeans, for example, said Krüger, are convinced that their forefathers brought literacy to Africa. "But of course, African cultures, like all others, already had their own semiotic systems long before that." By adopting a broader perspective, there is also hope that, despite decolonization, globally relevant ideas such as freedom and emancipation can be further developed in togetherness.

Andreas Eckert on the podium
Prof. Dr. Andreas Eckert (left) researches at the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin. (Credit: Philip Bartz for the Volkswagen Foundation)

Accusations and allegations

Prof. Dr. Andreas Eckert from the Institute for Asian and African Studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin also put in a plea for a differentiated view. Contrary to the popular image of Africa, which is still very much a generalized one, we are dealing with a vastly complex, multi-layered continent, says Eckert. Nevertheless, he is certain: "Bloody conflicts cannot be simply talked away by referring to the construction of roads and schools." The hardened constellation of mutual accusation can only be broken up by conducting painstaking research. There can be no simple answers to polarizing claims such as "the Africans are themselves to blame for the fact that their states are not developing" or "the current neo-colonial structures leave no room for fair development", Eckert emphasized. Up to the 1970s, African states had been interesting for the global economy primarily as suppliers of raw materials – since then, interest in integrating African participants in the international market has remained low.

Infrastructure and economic order

It is a question of breaking down economic roles, Eckert explains: "What are the options for African states when dealing with their rich resources going forward?" Their exploitation creates growth rates – but hardly any jobs. At the beginning of independence more than 50 years ago, many states were economically oriented solely towards raw materials due to their colonial past. "In addition, there was hardly any infrastructure or industry," states Eckert. The new start in financial and technological dependence on Europe had primarily served the interests of the former colonial masters and a handful of local elites. Up to the present day, a basic paternalistic attitude has prevailed. "We need a new economic order that creates real future prospects for Africa and does not leave the people there standing in the rain," Eckert sums up.

Albert Gouaffo auf dem Podium
Prof. Dr. Albert Gouaffo is professor of literature and cultural studies, including intercultural communication, at the University of Dschang, Cameroon. (Credit: Philip Bartz for the Volkswagen Foundation)

Eploitation and continuity  

Prof. Dr. Albert Gouaffo is professor of literature and cultural studies, including intercultural communication, at the University of Dschang in Cameroon. He has some strong words for the economic effects of colonialism: "It was a system of violent economic exploitation from which Europe benefited enormously in the past – and continues to do so today." The European states were driven by nationalist competition for empires, says Gouaffo. Their primary interests were the creation of settlement areas for their own population, access to raw materials for their flourishing industries at home and to markets for their finished products. The structures have remained unchanged to this day: "Natural resources are taken from Africa, and manufactured products come back." 

Self-confidence and need for action

In this context, it is also more important than ever to inquire critically into who benefits most from development aid – for the ultimate beneficiaries are often European companies which, for example, have been awarded large construction contracts. But local awareness is growing, as Gouaffo points out: "European rhetoric no longer exerts such an influence on the self-confident formerly 'subservient' colonials." Nonetheless, he continues to be confronted on a daily basis with the colonial heritage in Dschang: The university where he teaches, for example, was founded in colonial times. In Europe, on the other hand, Gouaffo perceives a need for action beyond an emancipated discussion about decolonization: "Disciplines such as ethnology and African studies or institutions such as museums and zoological gardens must put their self-conception in question." He considers it essential to address things openly. This begins with textbooks: "The history of colonialism must not be told solely from the perspective of the former rulers." 

Christiane Bürger on the podium
Dr. Christiane Bürger works for Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung. (Credit: Philip Bartz for the Volkswagen Foundation)

Change of perspective and the politics of memory 

Dr. Christiane Bürger, Trustee of the Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung (Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation), gave examples of the consequences arising from the slow public change of perspective. In the African Quarter in the Berlin district of Wedding, though, some progress has been made in the renaming of street names: "This is a political sign following a decade of dispute over political correctness." The African stone at the Columbiadamm cemetery in Berlin-Neukölln, dedicated to the German soldiers killed in the 1907 war against the Nama and Herero in today's Namibia, was supplemented in 2009 by a plaque drawing attention to the victims of German colonial rule. She pointed out, though: "At that time, the use of the term 'genocide' was still prevented by the German Foreign Office." In the meantime, she says, there has been a radical change in conceptions of history and their consequences for the culture of remembrance. In this context, Bürger considers it important not to give Africa a blanket problem: "We must develop a different approach to this continent that is beyond the negative."

Injustice and restitution

A discussion on the return of exhibits from European museums originating from Africa revolved around the world's largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the atrium of the Berlin Natural History Museum. The bones were discovered in Tanzania around 1909 and brought to Germany where they were assembled by German experts. "Who does the dinosaur belong to?", asks Aguigah, referring to negotiations with a museum in Tanzania that is making claims to the find. Bürger considers the general restitution debate, which has been emerging for two years now, to be of great importance: "We must clear up the injustice in the acquisition history of collections." In this context, it will be interesting to follow the pending discussion in the frame of the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin Palace. "Perhaps we need to find ways to share exhibits," Bürger says, adding: "Isn't a copy of a skeleton sufficient, while we make the bones accessible worldwide as a research object?"

Das Podium des Herrenhäuser Forums
The Herrenhausen Forum on Colonial Heritage was well attended. (Credit: Philip Bartz for the Volkswagen Foundation)

World knowledge and European ideas 

Krüger agreed on this point: "We must bring into question whether access to world knowledge is to be seen as Europe's mission and right."  The question of complex scientific link-ups is also interesting: "Do files, documents, knowledge and research belong inseparably to the bones of a dinosaur?" Eckert, who is involved in the process surrounding the Humboldt Forum, agrees with his colleagues: "Why do almost only European and North American institutions claim to be the managers of the world's knowledge?" Europeans are also the main participants in the debate about returning exhibits to Africa. Perhaps, according to Eckert, a new landscape of remembrance also calls for completely new concepts: "The European idea of what a museum should be is not necessarily right for Africa." It is important to listen to as many positions as possible, also from Africa, and ultimately to ask: "How should we deal with our common history?"

Boxes and claims

Gouaffo names cases from the restitution debate which he considers to be quite clear: "Many objects have been lying around in boxes for 100 years and have never been exhibited." In the case of exhibits that have been torn out of spiritual contexts, a return is also undisputed, although this often cannot heal the consciously triggered cultural breaks. "During punitive expeditions and raids, ritual objects and insignia of power were often deliberately stolen in order to break people’s pride and destroy identities," explains Gouaffo. As a matter of principle, Germany has no absolute claim to cultural assets from Africa; the decision on whether to return them must lie with the countries of origin. "If that is what they want, then Germany must simply concede," demands Gouaffo, and with reference to the dinosaur skeleton in the Berlin Natural History Museum goes on to explain: "If you want to visit it in the future, you should do so in Tanzania – then the tourists will bring money into the country."

Author: Thomas Kaestle

Call "Global Issues – Integrating Different Perspectives on Cultural Heritage and Change"

Menschen vor traditionellem Holzhaus
The research project "Shared Knowledge", which deals with the "decolonization" of ethnological museums, accompanies the construction phases of a traditional community house of the Kotiria in Macucu (Colombia). (Photo: Mikko Gaestel)

The Volkswagen Foundation started the call "Global Issues – Integrating Different Perspectives on Cultural Heritage and Change" in December 2019. It is part of the funding initiative "Global Issues", that was established in 2017 with the aim of promoting research focussing on the changes impacting society at the beginning of the 21st century (as framed by the SDGs). This is the second thematic call, further calls on other thematic areas – addressing a variety of disciplines – will follow.
This call for funding targets mainly the humanities, cultural and social sciences, but by no means excludes the involvement of other disciplines. Funding will be provided for small, but strongly interacting research consortia of up to five partners. Besides one partner working at an institution in Germany, Italy or Sweden the involvement of two partners based in Low and Middle Income Countries outside of Europe is generally required. Funding will be provided for up to four years and covers all direct project-related costs. Project consortia may apply for a maximum amount of EUR 1.5 million.

For more information on the call, please visit "Global Issues – Integrating Different Perspectives on Cultural Heritage and Change".