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Germany's colonial history often missing at school

October 10, 2020

Many German students learn nothing about their country's colonial past. Events such as the genocide in Namibia are taught only at teachers' discretion. Now campaigners are aiming to change this.

Herero prisoners in German Southwest Africa in 1904
Image: ullstein bild

The information sheet shows Hendrik Witbooi on the $200 banknote of his home country, Namibia. High school students learn that Witbooi fought against the German occupation of what is now Namibia at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century.

Germans carried out a genocide of the Herero and Nama people in the country, which European powers called German South West Africa at the time. In Namibia, Witbooi is still honored as a hero for his fight to gain freedom from the German colonialists.

But pupils in Germany are very unlikely to know anything about Witbooi. The information sheet about Witbooi was put together by the German association Gemeinsam für Afrika (Together for Africa) in the hope that interested teachers will use it in their classrooms, but it is not a part of official teaching materials in German schools.

This is because, at present, official school textbooks and curricula in German schools almost completely neglect the 30-year-long history of German colonialism in Africa and the western Pacific. The topic is not taught at all in some German states and only touched on in others.

Nambian 200-dollar banknotes with picture of Hendrik Witbooi
Hendrik Witbooi is still a hero in Namibia for his fight against the German occupiersImage: Shotshop/imago images

Call for reform

"That is why the textbooks and curricula have to be reviewed," said Abigail Fugah, from Cologne, who has started a petition with this aim. Almost 95,000 people have already signed.

"What is currently taught in schools is not enough," Fugah told DW. She related that when she was at school, teachers barely covered the topics of German colonial history and racism at all, though she herself had suffered under the latter often enough. "I didn't have an easy time of it at school. Both of my parents come from Ghana," she said.

From 1884 to 1916, German colonial officials were also in charge in the west of Africa, in areas that are today the Togolese Republic and parts of Ghana. What was known as "Togoland" was considered to be a "model colony" by the German Empire. But here, too, the Germans exploited natural resources, denied the Togolese their rights and punished them with beatings.

Abigail Fugah
Abigail Fugah is determined to change how history is taught in German schoolsImage: Privat

Fugah believes that present-day racism in Germany can be understood only when people know about this colonial history. "If Black children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn something about it," she said.

Criticism and support from teachers

Fugah said her petition had met with mixed reactions. "Most of those who criticize it are teachers. They accuse us of overlooking the fact that colonial history is already part of the curriculum. But the problem is that the topic is not compulsory," she said. The murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, World War II, the Cold War and the division of Germany are all important topics in German history classes, but there is little time left over for other topics.

Unless teachers take that time, as Imke Stahlmann does. She is a teacher at the Farmsen high school in Hamburg. "We have been dealing with the topic of German colonial history relatively intensively with students in their final years for about 15 years," she told DW. After all, she said, colonial history is a topic "that is incredibly relevant for understanding so many current international issues."

That is why she finds it important to look at the connections between colonial history and everyday racism, she said — more than ever this year, after the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. She said her pupils were very motivated to engage with the topic, even outside of lessons.

German high schools students make a film about Germany's colonial pas
German high schools students make a film about Germany's colonial pastImage: Imke Stahlmann

As part of this, Stahlmann's pupils visited the German-East Africa war memorial in the Jenfeld district of Hamburg, where German colonial history is actually celebrated in memorials created during the Nazi era. The Askari Relief, for example, shows colonial officers as heroes and leaders followed obediently by local soldiers. "We thought about the way this memorial is treated," Stahlmann said. "And the pupils actually started to come up with alternative proposals."

Since 2018, the Farmsen school has been partnering with the Chang'ombe Secondary School in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. "We realized that we deal with very similar topics in history lessons at both schools, including imperialism and colonial history," Stahlmann said. "So we came up with the idea of giving our pupils the opportunity to work on this theme together."

So pupils from the former colonial power, Germany, and the former colony, German East Africa, swapped ideas on their joint history. This culminated in mutual visits. In Hamburg, the pupils made a film together at the colonialist memorial.

Abigail Fugah and other activists realize that not every school can organize an exchange like this. But she hopes all the same that all pupils in German have the opportunity to engage with Germany's colonial past and its legacy and with their own racism. Fugah wants to play a part herself: At the moment, she is undergoing training in anti-racism coaching at schools.


Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille
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