This article is part of the feature „… a world in which coloniality no longer has a place.

On Greatness. The question of the gaze in Germany

26 min read

Léonora Miano

You can find the original text (French) here as PDF.

“Around here it isn’t proper to denigrate a person openly. But that’s easy to get around, since built right into the color symbolism is a subliminal denigration of Blacks, which is in this way all the more effective.  Given the black-white matrix in people’s minds – you are placed on the nonwhite side and you are classified as an ‘also-person.’ After all, Blacks are ‘also’ people.” These lines by Ellen Wiedenroth from “What makes me so different in the eyes of others?”[1] are a telling reminder of the Afrodescendant presence in Germany and of the nature of interracial relations in the country. Whereas the English translation of Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out was published in 1992 in the United States, the original texts featured in this compilation were published in Germany in 1986 and mainly addressed Germans.

What importance has this pioneering book taken on in twenty-first century Germany? Has it become a contemporary classic, a tool of self-knowledge and understanding for a society that can look at itself in the mirror held out to it by its marginalized categories? The answer resides to a degree in the fact that it was never translated into French and that the American edition was put out by a university press. Written to break the silence, as its subtitle indicates, Showing Our Colors never became a book for a wide readership, a seminal text outside academic circles. This means that the aforementioned “subliminal denigration” is no doubt still at work, and that the rejection of the other operates in an unconscious but tenacious way, rooted as it is in old discursive practices and representations. This is not without consequences for the way in which people of Sub-Saharan descent are seen, those who were negatively racialized, reduced to their complexion.

“I have to assert myself in a society that appears to be neutral but isn’t,”[2] writes Abena Adomako, a twenty-three year old Afro-German whose testimonial is included in the compilation. This declaration reveals the existence of a gap between appearances and reality, and emphasizes the difficulties that face Germans of Sub-Saharan descent in a world that greeted their unexpected presence with avoidance and silence. But the malaise triggered by the presence of these bodies – few in number as they may have been at the time in the German landscape – and the incapacity to absorb them enough for them to become an integral component of national discourse speak volumes. They relate a belated, then thwarted colonial ambition, a poorly assimilated part of the country’s past that, without finding its place in the official telling of history, became a lasting source of pain and a cause today for embarrassment.

As everyone knows, the division of Africa between European powers was decided in Berlin between 15 November 1884 and 26 February 1885. The German colonial empire, however, was short-lived. So much so that, “the German population did not have the time between 1884 and 1918 to grow accustomed to the existence of its empire.”[3] In addition, “Contacts were rare in the early twentieth century; the empire was considered economically unprofitable and Germany did not have colonies of settlers, unlike other colonial powers. On the other hand, the loss of this empire caused a shock and was perceived as a humiliation.”[4] As a result, because interactions with them had been infrequent, people of Sub-Saharan descent were long disregarded, but at the same time they were seen to embody defeat, and even decline. Like its eminent English, French or Portuguese homologues and rivals, Germany had colonial ambitions – firstly in Europe itself – and a dream of grandeur that led it from Africa to Oceania. To understand how this often frustrated desire impacted the gaze focused on populations of non-European origin and find out how this can still be expressed in our day, a word must be said about this much sought-after grandeur.

I am using the term grandeur or greatness in its social and political sense: glory, power, and influence being the three words most commonly associated with it. This is the primary meaning in which it is employed by representatives of States whenever they set a course for their country and it has been since nations have given themselves political destinies. Achieving it is the ambition formulated by ruling authorities not only because they are driven by the thirst for power that, throughout history and across continents, has given rise to so many conquerors with bloody track records. Elites speak of grandeur because it strikes a chord with audiences world over that find the notion inspiring. Nobody wants to belong to the powerless, the vulnerable, or the colonizable. Nobody cares that grandeur, in its political sense, is by no means synonymous with nobility. It is often precisely the opposite. The aptitudes needed to enter the circle of the great do not preclude crimes. People want to see themselves as citizens of a powerful country, one that leads others and imposes itself in areas that are deemed important, such as technoscience, weaponry, and economics.

Culture is also one of the vehicles of power and it is so in many ways. Its foremost function is to shape the imagination. In the colonial context, minds have to be captured after bodies have been subjugated. This is something that can be observed in all long-term colonial operations. Intellectual and cultural domination encourages the oppressed to embrace many aspects of the oppressive system, thereby complicating their opposition to it, shifting the conflict to the interior of their psyche, and diminishing the possibility for them to liberate themselves from it. For this reason colonial systems do not rely on physical violence alone. Its symbolic dimension is much more effective and much less costly. The “subliminal denigration” of which Ellen Wiedenroth writes characterizes this violence. Possessing objects belonging to conquered people and displaying them is a celebration of one’s own power, not a tribute to them. Germany is no exception to this rule, as we will see. Stealing cultural assets or purchasing them in the context of unequal trade, turning them away from their original meaning and investing them with new significations function as a way of inventing the other for the sake of valorizing the self. The domination is not limited to imposing a language, for example, which is in itself no mean accomplishment, given that language structures thinking, and thus shapes identities.

The language that is forced into mouths to penetrate minds and alter worldviews also serves as a vehicle of completely fabricated discourses, through which the colonized will learn to see themselves through foreign eyes. The representations are developed as much through stories as through images, always accompanied by captions, be they brief. Textbooks distributed in schools to the colonized in the imposed language are accompanied by an iconography through which reality itself is reinvented. The alienation that results from this enterprise is marked by a deprecatory view of the original culture. In the best of cases, it seems outdated and obsolete, which justifies abandoning it. In the worst of cases, the endangered culture is seen as harmful by those who, henceforth distant from their immediate ancestors, disdain or fear what was bequeathed to them. They feel they must detach themselves from it, a task that proves futile since the world continues to associate them with it, and even to conflate them with these grandparents over which history ran roughshod.

This production of negative representations is not confined to the colonized territories. It can also be found in the colonizing countries where it forges the perception of people whose origins go back to the dominated territories . May Opitz clearly demonstrates this  in her study of the imagery featured in German books for a young public after the Second World War.[5]  Even Germany decades after it had lost its colonies – a country that never managed to propagate its language, and that was further sullied by the Nazi barbarity – felt the imperative necessity of emphasizing the value of its culture, identity, and image, to the detriment of those of Africans. Faced with Sub-Saharans, it saw itself as perfectly entitled to proceed in this way, and it did not refrain from doing so.

It is not enough for a given culture to be magnificent and rich in contents that can elevate, edify and so on for it to prosper and become influential. It must be backed by political and economic strength. It has to possess an arsenal of tools enabling it to hold other cultures at gunpoint. Ultimately, it isn’t only by its intrinsic value that a culture thrives. It is by virtue of the means at the disposal of the country from which it emanates, of the determination that it demonstrates in acquiring that famous soft power. In these conditions, the supposed dialogue between cultures often resembles lectures, with the lecturer holding forth on one side and those who have to listen on the other, with those who set themselves up as references and the others who are meant to adopt them. It seldom goes the other way around, and only already dominant cultures seem to communicate with one another on a more or less equal footing. But, at bottom, they are born from a single womb, are bound by an ancient, sustained history, and they share common characteristics and experiences that are similar if not exactly the same. Their countries of origin embarked on colonial conquests that transformed the face of the world at the time and have birthed the one we know today.

Western cultures, since this is what we are talking about, remain dominant. They forged the present-day world, they forged our contemporary reality. From Shanghai to Singapore, from Pointe-Noire to Nairobi, bankers work according to the same rules, drive the same cars (often German), dress the same way down to the very color of their suits. Nothing of what characterizes their professional lives, which occupies the bulk of their time, comes from their ancestral culture. The same is true in all areas or nearly. We all live in the regime of a modernity that is first and foremost Western. However bold the rivals of the West may be, in scientific, military or economic terms, there isn’t a single one whose thinking and methods appear fully desirable in themselves. For instance, when one is a young European of Maghrebin descent who decides to settle in Dubai, it is to live in a Muslim country covered in skyscrapers with suitably paved highways running between them, and not in a Bedouin camp in the middle of the desert. The triumph of the Western model over the material lives of all people in the world does not tolerate challenge.

As for the professed values of the Western system, things sometimes seem less clear-cut. Far from being the result of fierce resistance from those who refuse its hegemony in all areas, the West’s failure to impose its views on some social or political subjects also has to do with the way that Westerners are continually compromising their own principles, betraying them whenever the occasion arises and, in particular, in their relations with other people. It is rare to see Western rulers brought before international courts, regardless of their responsibilities in major conflicts or in the pure and simple destruction of States. Territorial disputes are seldom decided in their disfavor, and they are not sanctioned when they transgress international law, as can be seen in the disagreements opposing France and Madagascar over The Scattered Islands. Western countries may hold democracy dear but it does not prevent them from trading with autocratic regimes, importing merchandise manufactured under ethically deplorable conditions, or backing confirmed dictatorships.

And war, which should horrify everyone to the point of being banished from relations between nations, is a nearly commonplace activity, subjected like all others to laws, including those of the marketplace. Indeed, the persistence of armed conflicts is lucrative and necessary for arms dealers. Among those, of course, the hierarchies established by history are at work: grandeur is dependent to a large extent on military strength, but also on the capacity to design and market the most efficient weapons. Ordinarily, the greatest and the most powerful were and remain those who can exterminate others. Since this is how it is, it is not surprising to see global imaginaries weighed down by figures responsible for the disappearance of nations, cultures, memories, and knowledge. European colonization may well have put the great regions of the world in touch with one another but it did not give rise to an egalitarian distribution of narratives. On the contrary, it solidified hierarchies that did not allow for valorizing the contribution of all to the global human experience.

It is mainly for this reason that, in present-day Western societies, which gave themselves a multi-ethnic destiny by their colonial history, minority groups lambast the monuments erected to the glory of the agents of conquest. This insistence on memorial justice, on sharing the public space and on ethics in general, became prominent after George Floyd’s murder, but it is not new. These groups are raising questions concerning the faithfulness of the societies in which they live to their own stated values (equal rights for all, no discrimination or racism, etc.), how these values are manifested in daily life in countries that still seem to prefer identifying with conquerors, and whether fraternizing is possible when people stand on opposite banks of the same history.

These questions are raised in a louder and more spectacular way in countries like the United Kingdom and France, which were large-scale colonial powers over a long span of time. This past brought an ethnic plurality from territories once held under their thumb into the demos of these old nations. The importance of British and French colonial empires is still audible in many countries where English or French are official languages. The two former colonial empires have different ways of dealing with these matters, and although the United Kingdom has made greater progress in many respects, the problems have not ceased for all that. In actual fact, all of Western Europe is being urged by its citizens of non-European descent, often with origins in colonized territories, to take part in this sometimes heated conversation.

The German case is somewhat unique. Its language, for example, is spoken infrequently in its former colonies, and most often, when it is, this is less a result of past influence than of knowledge acquired in school. Language and culture do not seem to have been chosen by contemporary Germany as valid tools to enhance its international standing. Which does not mean that it has given up trying to make itself attractive, far from it, but simply that its method is not contingent on the instruments of seduction that countries like France or the United States employ. German soft power relies above all on economic stability and strength. Under Angela Merkel, the country welcomed nearly a million refugees between 2015 and 2017, thus taking the lead in the fight for human rights. What’s more, Chancellor Merkel’s tranquil but resolute decision projected the image of a country that seems to have put its past shadows behind it once and for all so as to steer the world into an era of fraternity. Indeed these refugees came from distant countries and brought with them different cultures, and opening the door so wide to them testified to the country’s confidence in its capacity to absorb them. To feed, house, educate and care for them, but also to integrate and maintain the cohabitation of identities. Openness to the other and economic prosperity drew the contours of a new form of greatness, a grandeur in no way dependent on hard power, given that Germany had stripped itself of military strength. But did this stated determination to fraternize with those who were most vulnerable reflect a similar courage to address the Afro-German presence, for instance?

Since the Nazi tragedy continues to mark this country that lost its colonies quickly, the repercussions of its colonial past, its relations with territories that were once under its rule, and the treatment of its citizens of Sub-Saharan descent are barely known outside the country. Some have heard mention of the Herero and Namaqua genocide,[6] for example, but often as one of the long list of crimes committed by the Western Europeans on the lands they claimed. One rarely hears about the Africans thrown into Nazi camps, even though that regime’s racism toward people of Sub-Saharan descent left its imprint in people’s memories. Witness Adolf Hitler’s reaction to Jesse Owens’s wins at the Olympics in 1936. Or think of the contempt of the Nazis for the French army because it included African troops, which they saw as a voluntary lapse. To them it was a supreme insult that Europeans would think of sending colonial soldiers to fight them, thereby forcing them to confront people they considered subhuman.

Furthermore, German massacres of Africans in the French army often took on a hunting character. “The German soldiers, whether they belonged to the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS, adopted the behavior of hunters, treating the riflemen as game.”[7] Ousted as they were from the human race, they were refused burials.. During the French campaign (May to August 1940), the Nazi occupiers often prohibited the interment of Africans. An order was issued not to pay tribute to them, a ban not applied to French soldiers of European origin.[8] National Socialism clearly exacerbated the racism toward people of Sub-Saharan descent, but it was not at the origin of it. On the contrary, it grew on fertile soil. After all Germany’s colonial politics was already marked by racial segregation. “The idea of assimilating the ‘indigenes’ or granting equal rights was never entertained.”[9] Indeed, Africans and Germans were regarded as belonging to two fundamentally different human categories. Yet circumstances introduced contradictions into this system, as shown by cases of unions between German men and Sub-Saharan women.

With few German women present in the colonies, the men took up with African women. They did not usually marry them, but some did and as a result their wives and children were given German citizenship according to the rulings of the 1870 Indigenatsgesetz. The increase in the number of mixed-race offspring triggered the prohibition in 1905 of these marriages and, two years later, marriages contracted prior to this date were declared null and void.[10] As we can see, relations between Germans and Africans were troubled from the start. Obviously they were always necessarily inegalitarian, as was the case in all situations of a colonial type. When one’s own greatness depends on the debasement of other humans, it is hard to have healthy relations. Germany was not worse than other colonial powers in this regard. Policies changed, oscillating between intimacy and rejection, but racism was everywhere the rule.

What needs to be emphasized here, to return to the situation described at the beginning of the essay, is the historical background leading to Germany’s inability to reckon with its past relations with Africa and hence, with the Afro-German presence. The dense history that fed a colonial unconscious must be taken into account and examined in Germany as elsewhere. The colony, distant though it may have been, was always bursting into the daily life of Germans on the European continent, and producing particular situations. During the reign of Wilhelm II (1888-1918), some of the rare African immigrants in Germany had the possibility of becoming naturalized. However, if they married German women they were definitively banned from returning to their native countries where these unions remained prohibited. Needless to say, things became even more complicated under the National Socialist regime.

There were thousands of Afro-Germans during the Nazi period, from 1933 to 1945. Little by little sexual relations with Whites were forbidden. When they occurred, they were presented as rapes or acts of prostitution.[11] Often excluded from the school system, they were prohibited from exercising certain professions.[12] This severe discrimination contributed to erasing the Afro-German presence, and sweeping it under the carpet. The disappearance was not physical as such, despite the transfer to concentration camps. As in other European countries, Afro-Germans underwent the experience of their difference alone. Alone they faced negative images in their children’s books, heard pejorative songs about Blacks and so forth. They did not receive support from a community and grew up without positive referential figures.

Even if I were to focus on Afro-German history alone, it would be impossible to cover the complexities of it in a single essay. It is in fact richer and more intricate than might be supposed, since it also concerns people with African American parents and immigrants from countries that were not colonized by Germany. That the Afro-German experience exists is something that must be underscored. The question is how this presence, which strove to speak out more actively starting in the nineteen eighties, with such figures as May Opitz (whose pen name was May Ayim) and Ika Hügel-Marshall, influenced the country’s development of its post-colonial and multiracial narrative, race here being understood in its social sense. Is Germany’s search for a form of non-military greatness confined to economic performances? Don’t social orientations and especially the treatment of negatively racialized categories matter when it comes to projecting a serene, fraternal image?

Germany is still perceived as a domineering country by its counterparts in the European Union. The slightest disagreement with it will prompt mentions of Bismarck when it is not of Hitler himself. At a time when new communication technologies are circulating information at lightning speed, criticisms targeting Berlin are heard even in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Germany would also like to find and consolidate a place for itself. Like many of its European counterparts, and despite the fact that it lost its colonies and limited its military power to a strict minimum, Germany hasn’t renounced symbolic violence. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that was experienced as a humiliation did not require that the country return the many Sub-Saharan objects in the ethnographic collections of its museums, which are now called to ill-defined functions at the Humboldt Forum. “In planning the transfer of African collections to the heart of the German capital, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum thrust the thorny question of the heavy Prussian colonial heritage front and center. The aim of this ambitious project is to present, opposite the European collections on Museum Island, collections from Africa, but also from Asia, the Americas, and Oceania, which were hitherto on view in the peripheral district of Dahlem and to turn the new museum into a hub for the promotion of extra-European cultures.”[13]

Note that the cultures of  the world do not include Europe’s, and that its tendency to place itself outside the common space persists here. This world, of which Europe is not a part, is the one that it invaded and brutalized: this, it is impossible to overlook. The mere catalogue of territories concerned shows the many peoples crushed in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. Some have disappeared. Note also how Egypt, to name but one country, is not part of what is considered to represent Africa, though it is located on this continent and has been, without the slightest question, for millennia. In this absence too, a discourse can be read. Because Ancient Egypt elicits admiration from Europe, which often drank at its source, it is out of the question to embed it in a space dedicated to the subaltern cultures of Africa as it is construed by the colonial imagination. That we are in the twenty-first century doesn’t change much.

The way that most of the Sub-Saharan artefacts are exhibited at Humboldt Forum stamps the people who created them with the mark of inferiority. This is how they are still perceived today, since their productions are not presented with the aim of revealing something about the people who made them. The displays showcase instead the collectors of the pieces, their centers of interest, their more or less numerous travels, into the heart of darkness. Depending on the capacity of the individual to bring together elements from diverse cultures, one can find oneself faced with a jumble of objects that are impossible to connect to one another. Objects abound, some of exceptional value, but Africa is not here. What the visitor does encounter here is the sense of unease, the inner turmoil that must still inhabit a nation with a particular history, and which ignores, at bottom, how to make its way toward others.

To approach others when the others in question are Africans and one is a West European country – among those that divvied up a continent without consulting its inhabitants – firstly involves finding them in oneself, there where history reduced to silence lodged them. If it had occurred to those in charge at the Humboldt Forum that the Africa collection would be seen by Germans of Sub-Saharan descent, they probably would have designed the spaces differently. They probably would have seen the importance of discourse, of the verbal clarifications that should accompany the works. Young Afro-Germans will visit these rooms with their parents or their school friends. Teenagers and young adults may come by themselves. They will learn nothing about Africa, but they will hear Germany telling itself a story that is impossible to understand in 2021. They will not see Africa, but rather a gaze focused on it that is equally insulting to them. The fact that contemporary African artists are occasionally invited to show their work is no answer to the problem; in fact, it aggravates it. The opportunity that is offered to them and that most cannot refuse given the difficulties they encounter in exercising their profession in Africa, evidences the asymmetry that continues between the regions of the world related through colonization.

Like other European countries concerned by this problem, Germany is not always at ease with the burning issue of the restitution of cultural property. It is important to keep in mind that this matter exceeds by far the Sub-Saharan African case. Claims have been lodged from all the other humanities, all these other worlds presented at the Humboldt Forum, claims with regard both to objects and human remains. For the fact is that Western Europe plundered, offended, profaned, and so forth. What gives the case of Sub-Saharan Africa its particularity is the extent of the spoliation. Western institutions holding these works find a variety of stratagems to avoid meeting the rare demands for restitution, which do not concern all the pieces, not by a long shot. They do not find it relevant to accede to the demands; they prevaricate, and sometimes consent to lend them or have them travel. It seems obvious that this Sub-Saharan heritage – so abundant that it cannot all be exhibited – offers to the grandeur of the Europeans who appropriated it, a materialization that it can no longer do without. The reflection of themselves afforded by a battered Africa has become indispensable to countries that see their greatness only through the subjugation of others.

As far as Afropeans are concerned – Afro-Germans in the case we are discussing here – no notice is taken of the fact that this contemptuous gaze, this deprecatory narrative manufactures identity pathologies that are harmful to all. By continuing to brutalize the African aspect of a human group that is part of Germany, it is its relationship with the country that is undermined. “After all, Blacks are ‘also’ people,” says Ellen Wiedenroth. What should be emphasized is that Afro-Germans are also and sometimes above all Germans. The history of their country cannot overlook its colonial episodes. Since the African collections of the Humboldt Forum and other European museums chant the greatness of those that acquired possession of them, African verses will need to be composed and loudly sung. It must be remembered that the nations of Western Europe contain human groups born of violence against Africa and that  their daily lives are marked by the negative racialization of Sub-Saharans and of their descendants across the planet. How is the prestige derived from possessing African artefacts transmitted to Afrodescendants of Europe? This question should be on everyone’s mind. When this will be the case, greatness will no longer maintain its current face. Perhaps its new traits will have something to do with nobility.

Léonora Miano

Lomé, 12 September 2021