By Sevim Dagdelen
It took more than 117 years before a German head of state first asked for forgiveness for the abhorrent colonial crimes committed by Germany in its former colony of German East Africa. The visit by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Songea Memorial during his trip to Tanzania in early November and his request for forgiveness during his meeting with the descendants of Chief Songea Mbano, one of the leaders of the Maji Maji rebellion who was executed, was long overdue. Yet this visit provides scant grounds for optimism that German colonialism will be rigorously addressed, with redress for colonial crimes and the decolonisation of German foreign policy.
Songea, in the South of Tanzania, the site of the Maji Maji Museum and the tomb of Chief Songea Mbano, was the setting for one of the bloodiest chapters in German colonial history. It was from here that the colonial troops of the German Empire set out to crush what was known as the Maji Maji rebellion between 1905 and 1907. This brutal war of extermination by the colonial troops was triggered by a popular revolt in the south of what was then German East Africa against German colonial rule with its exploitative and repressive policies. As well as brutally crushing the uprising, the German colonial troops pursued a scorched-earth policy, systematically destroying fields and villages, and thus the livelihoods of the civilian population. It is estimated that up to 300,000 people – around one third of the population in the area concerned – were killed as a result of the war and its effects.
The absence of these atrocities from German collective memory is a case of historical amnesia. The fact that Federal President Steinmeier recalled the German colonial crimes by visiting this location is thus undoubtedly progress in itself. Nevertheless, the signs are that this symbolic gesture will be all and that the promise to address these crimes will not be delivered on any time soon. This is indicated by the fact that the Federal President did not visit Tanzania with a commission of historians but was instead accompanied by a business delegation. Tanzania is increasingly becoming the focus of economic interests, as a market for mining supplies, for example, and also as a supplier of natural resources like gold, graphite, rare earths, uranium and coal. Against this background, the request for forgiveness appears to be essentially a means to an end. Rather than engaging in honest reconciliation and redress, the goal is to maintain an Africa policy based on neocolonial exploitative relations. This is also reflected in the fact that President Steinmeier made no mention whatsoever of the structural impacts of German colonial rule which endure to this day. Never mind expressing a willingness to recognise the atrocities committed by the colonial troops as war crimes and genocide.
This is part of a strategy being pursued by the German Federal Government to avoid a genuine reckoning with the past, thus avoiding any kind of claim to compensation, as is clear from the Federal Government’s answers to the minor interpellations which I submitted over recent months. In these answers, the Federal Government not only rejects the classification of German crimes in its former colony of German East Africa as genocide, but also, despite demands from the Tanzanian side, shows absolutely no intention of addressing the colonial past pro-actively by beginning negotiations on redress.
This is a reflection of the Federal Government’s unwillingness in general to address German colonialism in political and legal terms, which was previously evident in the negotiations with Namibia on recognising the genocide against the Herero and Nama there and ensuring redress. In the case of Namibia, the Federal Government agreed to engage in negotiations, in reaction to massive political pressure from Namibian victims’ associations amongst others. Yet it shamelessly exploited its position of power in neocolonial fashion, through the de facto exclusion of all those aiming for legal recognition of the genocide and for reparations. The fact that reconciliation failed in the case of Namibia and that ratification of the “Reconciliation Agreement” negotiated in 2021 between the delegations of the two countries is still outstanding is ultimately the result of the Federal Government’s insistence on the perpetuation of “development aid”, rather than reparations in the form of individual compensation and structural redress for the impacts of German colonialism.
This dishonourable way of dealing with Germany’s own colonial history and the resulting responsibility is apparently now being repeated with regard to German colonial crimes in what is now Tanzania. Through its refusal to engage in dialogue with the communities particularly affected by the genocide, the Federal Government certainly unmasks as pure hypocrisy the new start in relations with the African states and departure from neo-colonial exploitation recently proclaimed by Federal Chancellor Scholz. The irony is the Federal Government’s unawareness that its intransigent attitude on German colonialism actually runs contrary to its own neocolonial Africa policy, by further undermining its credibility in the countries of the Global South. This applies on the one hand regarding moves to boost economic relations with the African states to Germany’s advantage – in the field of “green” hydrogen, for example – in reaction to the exploding energy prices following the boycott on cheap energy imports from Russia in the framework of the West’s economic war. It also applies to attempts to diminish the influence of Russia and China in the region in order to maintain the current hegemony and ensure access to natural resources. Yet, in view of the current shifts in global power structures and the resulting new opportunities for cooperation open to countries of the South, as well as the West’s increasingly obvious double standards, these states are less and less inclined to comply with the West’s neocolonial diktat. This is something which Federal Chancellor Scholz experienced firsthand when he returned with few tangible results from his trip to West Africa, which took place parallel to the Federal President’s Tanzania visit and was aimed at securing natural resources and combating migration.
If Federal President Steinmeier was serious about his promise to address the past, he ought to encourage the Federal Government to seek dialogue with the descendants of the victims and the Tanzanian government on opportunities for redress and press ahead with the restitution of all cultural treasures and human remains located in Germany. In view of the widespread colonial amnesia, the public culture of remembrance must urgently be strengthened, in the first instance by German colonial crimes being made a compulsory part of the curriculum in schools and state-run educational institutions. As long as the Federal Government sticks to its strategy of simply refusing to budge and waiting for it all to blow over, no critical reflection on the German colonial past will occur. Yet this is vital in view of Germany’s historical responsibility and is necessary to overcome the colonial continuities which still exist to the present day.
Sevim Dagdelen is a Member of the German Bundestag since 2005. In October 2023, she left her former party Die Linke and is now member of Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW). As a long-serving member in the Foreign Affairs Committee and prominent critic of US imperialism and NATO, she is committed to peace and diplomacy and advocates for an independent and sovereign civilian European foreign policy. She was the first MP to visit journalist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. Since then, she has been actively campaigning for ending his prosecution.
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Photo: Creative Commons/Demonstration of German weapons in front of Ngoni warriors in 1897. Fighters from the Ngoni ethnic group were executed with their leader Chief Mbano in the Maji Maji uprising. The head of Chief Mbano was taken to Germany, making him one of several leaders and kings whose remains were taken from Tanzania to German institutes.