Is Germany Finally Dealing With Its Abusive Colonial History?

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The Cameroon Minister of External Relations, H.E. Lejeune Mbella Mbella, and Minister of State at the German Federal Foreign Office, Katja Keul, in Yaoundé, Cameroon, October 2022. 
© 2022 MINREX Ministère des Relations Extérieures du Cameroun

A top German official gave a strong speech on the need for Germany to reckon with its abusive colonial past in Cameroon, a German colony between 1884 and 1919, and other former German colonies.

Katja Keul, minister of state at the German Federal Foreign Office, stated that “In Germany, we either played down or ignored the colonial period for far too long. As a society, as a government, and also as the Federal Foreign Office. … Let me put this quite bluntly: European colonialism was an unjust system.”

During her visit to Cameroon from October 30, 2022 to November 2, Keul paid tribute to Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, a Douala king and resistance leader against Germany’s colony in Cameroon. In 1914, the German colonial administration sentenced the king to death in a trial that violated due process, even at the time.

Keul said that “Colonialism led to unimaginable suffering. It destroyed the lives of many people in Africa. King Rudolf Manga Bell was one of them.”

Keul also discussed with Cameroon’s Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute the prospects of returning artifacts that were removed from Cameroon during the colonial era.

She committed the German government “to face up to this chapter of our history and to put an end to the shortcomings in coming to grips with it.”

Keul’s speech comes on the heels of Germany’s refusal in September to renegotiate a reparation deal related to the atrocities, now recognized by Germany as genocide, committed against the Herero and Nama peoples during Germany’s colonization of Namibia between 1885 and 1919. The “reconciliation agreement” was deemed a failure by, among others, colonial historians and representatives of the Herero and Nama, in part because the latter were not recognized as official partners during negotiations between the German and Namibian governments.

Studies have shown that Germany is grappling with structural racism within its institutions, such as the police, healthcare provision, and public employment services.

If the German government is serious about reckoning with its colonial past, it should reconsider its approach on reparations and examine how its colonial past affects racism in Germany today. The EU requires Germany to adopt a National Action Plan on Racism; adopting one addressing racism rooted in colonialism would be an important step.

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