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Art can help Germany work through colonial past, says FM Steinmeier

Germany committed acts of genocide during its colonial reign in western Africa. Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is making efforts to work through the past and told DW that art can help find answers.

German artist Andréas Lang, the current holder of the Federal Foreign Office's art grant, has taken on a politically charged project: He traveled to Cameroon to search for traces of German colonial history. For the visual and video artist, the trip had a family connection, since his great-grandfather was a soldier in the German military unit stationed there.

Germany's colonial empire, which included Cameroon, lasted for just 30 years and ended with Germany's defeat in World War II. Violent campaigns against the Herero and Nama peoples in what is now Namibia are among the worst crimes in Germany's colonial history. It was only recently that the German government recognized the events as genocide.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier - who initiated the regular grants for artists - told DW that art is one way to try to come to terms with history.

DW: Nearly 100 years after the end of the German colonial empire, there is still much work to be done. But art seems to be finding a way to address those issues. Andréas Lang, who is currently the artist in residence at the Federal Foreign Office, visited Cameroon and uses his art to reflecting on his experiences. Is culture just a means to an end - a last resort when politics run out of solutions?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Of course not. It's perhaps important to mention that Germany's colonial history did not take on the dimensions that France or Great Britain did. But the struggle to attain colonial power also existed in Germany. And dealing with this part of history is certainly not something that has been part of our active commemorative culture.

That's why I'm thankful that people like Andréas Lang with his Cameroon project are dedicating themselves to a piece of this colonial history.

Artist Andréas Lang is pictured at a vernissage at the Federal Foreign Office, Copyright: Photothek

Artist Andréas Lang is pictured at a vernissage at the Federal Foreign Office

I do not think that art can replace politics or foreign affairs. That's not the reason why we decided to introduce this artist in residence program at the Federal Foreign Office.

But art can help us find the right questions to ask, and perhaps get answers that we didn't have in the past.

What are these political answers? What are the challenges and pitfalls when it comes to working through Germany's colonial history?

We have, for example, begun a joint project with Namibia where we are working through the horrible acts committed mainly by the German military at that time.

In this ongoing exchange, we are asking the following question: How can we manage to not only to deal with the past, but building on this knowledge of the past also manage to forge a common future between two states? That is the basis of our talks and I hope that we will make progress - with the help of these kinds of cultural projects here at the Federal Foreign Office.

What are the next steps and time frame for reconciliation - and perhaps reparations?

It's like it is in the area of culture. When you begin a process in foreign affairs, you never know exactly when it will end. We started talks with Namibia in the middle of last year and we are mid-way.

We expect a delegation from Namibia to come soon. It's a debate that is unfolding briskly ,and of course there are various expectations involved. But I'm quite confident that over the next few years we will reach a result.

Are similar talks planned with Cameroon?

We have developed Namibia first as a template. But it will also serve as a case that will set standards for how to deal with other parts of colonial history.

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