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Germany's colonial era: Battling oblivion with art

Christine Harjes
March 16, 2024

Street names, monuments and graves of colonial rulers: the colonial era left its mark on Germany. In the German city of Bonn, artist Cheryl McIntosh explores colonial history and its impact on the present.

Cheryl McIntosh stands in front of a collage
Cheryl McIntosh exposes art on colonialismImage: Emanuel Spieske

Visitors crowd around the works of Cheryl McIntosh in Ernst Moritz Arndt House, a branch of Bonn City Museum. Those who want to view all of the installations and collages need to be patient — her exhibition Counter Thoughts, Counter Images has been attracting a lot of interest.

McIntosh, who was born in Jamaica, uses her art to address colonial history.

The exhibition is part of the German city of Bonn's Culture(s) of Remembrance project that highlights themes of colonialism, racism, resistance and recognition.

'Sufferance for the wealth of a few' by Cheryl McIntosh depicts cotton, sugar and coffee next to an apparently enslaved figure
McIntosh expresses colonial exploitation in a floor installation that portrays cotton, sugar and coffee next to an apparently enslaved figureImage: Emanuel Spieske

Germany's forgotten history

In an installation in the entrance area of the villa where the exhibition is taking place, McIntosh confronts visitors with a quote from Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.

"The German Reich must absolutely strive for the acquisition of colonies. In the Reich itself there is too little room for its large population."

Adenauer's quote from 1927, before he was chancellor, is probably unknown to most Germans. According to McIntosh, they know far too little about Germany's colonial history.

"There should be more discussion about it. Schools should deal more with colonial history so that children become aware of what happened over 100 years ago," the artist said.

How Germany built an African Empire

Brutal conquests

Between 1885 and 1919, Germany was the third-largest colonial power in Africa.

The colonies included present-day Namibia, the present-day states of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania (without Zanzibar) as well as Togo, Cameroon and areas in present-day Ghana.

Resistance was brutally crushed by the Germans during the conquest of the colonies. Traces of this period can still be found in Germany.

Lothar von Trotha, a military commander who played a key role in suppressing resistance and violent uprisings in the German colonies, for example, is buried in Bonn.

As commander of the colonial troops in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia, von Trotha issued what he called an "extermination order" in 1904 leading to the horrific crushing of a Herero uprising and the starvation and killing of thousands of civilians in what became Namibia. 

It's estimated that up to 100,000 Herero and Nama people died as a result of German colonial crimes. Von Trotha's grave bears no mention of his murderous past.

Unimaginable brutality of German conquest in East Africa

One visitor emphasized the relevance of the topic.

"Colonial history still shapes us today, and that's why I think it's still very important to educate and inform people about it," they told DW.

Another visitor explained where he primarily still sees the influence of the colonial era. "Our entire consumer world is based on the fact that we were able to enrich ourselves well from the resources of other regions of the world over certain periods of time, or to do better in barter trade and we are still experiencing this today," he told DW.

A work by artists Cheryl McIntosh
McIntosh depicts the Herero resistance fighter, Samuel Maharero. At his feet, a plaque covered with moss from von Trotha's grave provides information about the commander's acts of violenceImage: Emanuel Spieske

Colonialism and racism

For McIntosh, the effects of the colonial era go far beyond economic structures as a result of unequal power relations. Colonialism is also inextricably linked to current discrimination in Germany, she said.

"As a Black person, I have already been verbally attacked. For me, that is a sign of colonialism," McIntosh told DW.

That is perhaps why racism and colonialism have been the driving force behind her work from the very beginning. 

One visitor, who is often confronted by racism, emphasizes the topic's importance. 

"It's definitely clear that racism plays a big role in our society. The way we grew up and the way the past is. It's important that people are aware when they think or act in a racist way," the visitor told DW.

McIntosh — who has been dealing with the colonial era and racism in her art for almost 10 years — hopes her works will sharpen people's view of the colonial past and create more awareness of colonialism’s consequences.

"I would like people to start talking and exchanging ideas about what happened in the past. I think we need to start with a narrative and reflection," McIntosh told DW.

What colonial crimes did Germany commit in Africa?

This article was originally written in German.