When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.
Sadly the exhibition was one of those “No Cameras Allowed”. I did sneak one of Edoardo Di Muro’s Freiheit für Namibia. Solidarität mit der SWAPO (from the Antiimperialistisches Solidaritätskomitee für Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, Frankfurt am Main, 1976) because SWAPO. I don’t know they were something my father mentioned, or just because he was South African I would see them mentioned in the news and pay attention, but SWAPO is definitely a name I remember from Apartheid.
There’s a couple of other special exhibitions on right now that are likely Kameras verboten! so now’s a good time for me to start pestering the museums for special privileges, which might mean a future proper blogging of both these exhibitions.
My combination book unpacking / book selling (fuck yes, I sell books sometimes too!) led to the discovery of a few books I’d never blogged – or for that matter finished reading. David Nicholas’ The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500 is one of those, unfinished because it’s kinda boring; rereading cos it’s informative and enlightening in a broad, generalist, undergrad way, heavy on the facts and light on poetry, a bit like reading contract law or health insurance.
Who is David Nicholas and why does start sentences with ‘but’ so much? Professor Emeritus at Clemson University until he retired a decade ago, and yes, if there’s a distinct style of, white, anglo-euro-american male academic writing (and have I read a trunkload of them), he’s it (reminds me of Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith, or Aloïs Riegl). Around once every sentence I notice I’ve vagued out into mediæval fantasy land (me in central role saviour-ing or slaughtering, either/or), before returning to one of his regular and unintentionally hilarious sentences or clauses. (Such as – paraphrasing here: “Austrians always regarded the Swabians as aliens.”)
Yes. I have been learning things. No. Not quite sure what. Ignoring entirely the awkward-ish ‘Germanic’ in the title, no, he’s not tromping down the well-worn racist path of pure German identity, in fact he makes it quite clear without making it the central thesis that whatever constitutes ‘Germanic’ was throughout the period he covers conditional and contextual, and often incomprehensible: Swabians, Slavs, Wends, Frisians, Flems, Danish, Scandinavians all at various times and places both were and were not Germanic, even moving back and forth depending on where they were, whom they were speaking to or who was speaking of them. It’s the -ic in Germanic that’s important, an attribute of language, thinking, culture that moved back and forth between lands and regions, rather than an identity or nation that existed as a fixed object. But it’s the German that’s at issue, and while Nicholas broadly divides regions into England, Flanders, Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia, and Germanic regions (contemporary Germany, Austria), along with forays into Poland, Czech and those parts of the Holy Roman Empire, he nonetheless prioritises ‘German’. Probably would have been better to leave the title at “The Northern Lands” and move his focus to the interactions between these regions. Professor Len Scales’ review is far more eloquent on this than I can be.
My criticism is predominately on the boringness of the writing (ok, and on the substantial absence of women, art, culture, Jewish communities …). Dry, dry, dry enumeration of facts and names, which I can stodge through if it weren’t for baffling jumps back and forth across hundreds of years, frequently in the same paragraph. I’m sure for Nicholas this makes sense, but fuck me sometimes I’m at a loss to understand his line of reasoning or his point. If I was twenty, considering a life in mediæval history and was assigned this for coursework, I’d probably go off and become a tradie, spending the rest of my life thinking it was because I was stupid, and not that for all its density of information this work fundamentally uninterested in communicating – and I’m saying this as someone who reads Caroline Walker Bynum for pleasure (repeatedly).
For a more realistic comparison, trundling through Wikipedia pages on the Hanseatic League, Magdeburg, Sachsenspiegel, (all of which he’s written about), and various other labyrinths of mediæval gloriousness (plus following links out into the wilds of the internet) is far more informative, rewarding, and enjoyable. Weirdly, I keep hoping the next page he’ll break from his interminable introduction style and get down to some substantial writing. Not bloody likely.
If you’re at university and being made to read this, go somewhere else. Mediæval northern european history is mad fun, alternate history levels of science-fiction strangeness, it’s addictive as all shit, and it’s a living thing you can walk into any old church and see, it has philosophical debates and ideas as wonderful as Deleuze or Serres or Butler, art that thrashes contemporary stuff for levels of intensity (imagine walking into church and it was 5 hours of Volksbühne: that’s mediæval art), in all seriousness whatever workable future Europe has – politically, socially, culturally – it’s going to find more possibilities 800 years ago than in the last couple of hundred years of contagious bollocks, and if you’re reading The Northern Lands you’re going to experience approximately none of this. Fuck’s sake, go and read Bynum.
This was one of the less expensive works by Benhabib, already ten years old, but all the more relevant as Europe staggers back into nationalism, racism, and colonialist meddling. I didn’t want to commit straight off to the multiple tens of euros stuff. Benhabib loves Hannah Arendt, which is all right by me. Arendt is the philosopher I would give up all the others for, all those ‘big guns’ as my philosophy professor called them, Habermas, Heidegger, even the (old) new wave of Deleuze and his constellation, all of them for Hannah, as thorny as she is. Just read The Life of the Mind.
Benhabib also is fond of Kant, who I can’t really move past after reading all his racist “white people are the best” crap that I think is fundamentally responsible for the direction Europe has been on for the last 250 years). And she spends a lot of time on Rawls. Who I’ve never read. He’s a bit of a tool. He’s a nice, old, white, hetero man of the moral and political philosophy type who never exercised his empathy because he never needed to, and so those kind of questions which at best might be thought experiments to him, which are primary issues of survival and having a liveable life for the rest of us, never make it into his grand ideas.
Thus far, I went to read Benhabib and I’ve read plenty of Rawls. I suppose it’s necessary for her to clear the table—especially when Rawls and Kant left such a mess, though it reminds me of the unfortunate reflexive need of leftists to see the entire world through Marx’s beard. When she gets going though, wow is she sharp, and I’m kinda surprised I’d never heard of her until someone cruising me on OK Cupid said, “yo, read Benhabib!”. For her analysis of the failure of rights for refugees and obligations for nation states alone: a grim condemnation when read alongside the atrocity of refugees in Europe today.
Not easy or light reading here. Oh yeah, and she’s Turkish.
The title’s sensationalist. The cover I quite like; it looks better somehow attached to a book than on a screen. Black for Africa and red for China is crude when I think about it; does fit the title though. The paper is atrocious, not much better than newsprint, grey, joyless, and floppy.
Howard French I’ve been reading as a blogger for nearly ten years (bloody hell how did that happen), since he was based in Shanghai as the New York Times bureau chief. He doesn’t blog so much anymore, and hasn’t been based in China for most of the time since I added him to my feed reader. I seem to be reading more Africa stuff lately, possibly arriving at that from one side via mediæval art and my interest in representation in the artworks, and from the other via China. Gordon Matthew’s Ghetto at the Center of the World, exploring the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong and the international trade with Africa by Africans run through there, as well as the large African community in Guangzhou are probably the most significant prior connections. Germany’s colonial history would be a third.
I was hoping for a substantial book, along the lines of Frank Dikotter say, rather than Susan Mann, and it is investigative journalism of a type. French spent a lot of time travelling back and forth across Africa, met and talked with a lot of people, both African and Chinese, but it’s more like a very long piece of journalism than a book, each chapter and section repeating the same structure, the same meetings of individuals, the same driving, the same observations. It tends towards a homogeneous and not so meaningful view of Chinese presence in Africa, despite that being not French’s aim.
Anyone who follows China or Africa even in passing in the usual sources like the NY Times will have their opinions and prejudices confirmed: corruption all over, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, lack of legal transparency, fragile democracies or crypto-oligarchies, war and horror never too far. Even with the occasional positive or bright moments, the implicit future for most of sub-saharan Africa with China moving in isn’t a hopeful one. His discussion of China using migration to Africa and elsewhere as a means of dealing with its own population explosion and accompanying social and environmental issues is the one thing I’d read more of.
Ah, I’m not supposed to be reviewing here: why I’m reading it rather than what I thought afterwards. Maybe to say the subject of China in Africa—if it is indeed substantial—is one deserving solid works. This book is ok for a light Saturday afternoon read after finishing the weekend paper, but like newspapers it carries implicit bias, and whether it was in French’s preparation or writing it is limited in the diversity of subjects—either interviewed or discussed—the story builds itself on.
Normally something by China Miéville will be ingested by me in a matter of a couple of evenings. This one however, I’ve started three or four times, before putting it aside for more pleasurable books. So I begin again. Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law is exactly what the title says. No Bas-Lag here.
Why would I read such a thing? International law isn’t exactly an obvious fit with my other non-fiction reading, and as for Marx … he’s as wrong as Freud. A statement which I wanted to be able to elaborate on a little more, hence reading this. As for the international law, I think to some degree this underlies all my interest in China, East Asia and Central Asia; the history of how these places became countries with defined borders is one of imperialism then (messily) transitioning to a kind of jurisprudence.
But Marx. I’m finding Emma Goldman’s Anarchism useful for pointing out succinctly some of my problems with the bearded man. I tend to think that Marxism always devolves to some form of revolutionary dictatorship, with the commensurate suffering that goes with both revolutions and dictatorships. And even if this were not the case, as a system based on dialectical materialism, it is wrong from its very foundations.
As for that last thing, dialectical materialism, Miéville starts in the introduction by declaring unambiguously that this is the correct model, and this entire work of critiquing international law is done through this framework. In my currently anarchist-ascendent tendencies (I’m not really, but I do prefer it over any other socio-political philosophy), wherein I think quite seriously and neither idealistically or utopian that the end of the nation-state is highly desirable for the vast majority of humanity and all that isn’t human, reading Marx is an exercise in patience.
Luckily, Miéville is an excellent writer of both fiction and international law, and despite my snail-like pace, I’m finding it a very worthwhile and enjoyable read.