Guardian Editorial: Why can Germany face its colonial past and Britain cannot

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tags: colonialism, Germany, britain



Following is an excerpt from an editorial in the Guardian that has drawn worldwide interest.

The colonial history of modern Germany was relatively short. Germany itself only came into existence in 1871. Less than half a century later, in 1919, its colonial possessions were stripped from it. By comparison with Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and others, Germany’s empire left a relatively small imprint on the history of the globe.

Yet Germany’s colonial history was violent and bloody. It claimed possessions in west, east and southern Africa, as well as the south-west Pacific. These involved sustained plunder and racially driven violence against native peoples. When the Herero and Nama peoples of modern Namibia rebelled against German rule in 1904, for example, they were butchered, forced off their lands, their wells poisoned and the survivors imprisoned in concentration camps where they were often worked to death in squalid conditions.

Why this focus on Germany, readers may be asking? After all, other European colonial powers pursued similar policies over longer periods across more of the globe. The answer is that, unlike them, modern Germany has made a serious institutional effort to debate its colonial past and engage with former colonies on issues including reparations and formal apology. Delicate negotiations between Germany and Namibia about the events of 1904 are set to be completed by June. Meanwhile in Berlin, the German History Museum is currently hosting a special exhibition on Germany’s colonial past.

It is impossible to imagine either thing happening in Britain. As the Cecil Rhodes row a year ago showed, British educational and cultural life struggle to deal with a colonial past whose scale, duration and impact far exceeded that of imperial Germany. The British empire is rarely taught in schools. A museum on the subject in Bristol collapsed amid acrimony in 2012. Public debate rarely gets beyond the clash of jingoism and guilt. Occasional calls for reparations and acts of contrition are met with short shrift, and dismissed as legally invalid. Meanwhile, although Britain has other museums, from the British Museum downwards, with a range of imaginative historical programmes, there is no official museum of British history of the kind that Germany now supports in the heart of Berlin, let alone a national museum dedicated principally to the imperial past.




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