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Germany Is Learning a Lesson

Boris Pistorius standing in front of a row of uniformed members of India’s Tri-Services Guard of Honor.
Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, in New Delhi in June.Credit...Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

BERLIN — It’s not often that the publication of a policy paper is cause for excitement. But when the German government set out the country’s first national security strategy in June, it set off a flurry of coverage. The document, in the end, was a bit of a disappointment. Partly that was because, for all its focus on pressing matters of foreign policy, it seemed to miss something significant: a clear change in the country’s orientation. For the first time in the postwar period, Germany is paying proper attention to the rest of the world.

This starts with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has made a point of projecting Germany beyond its usual European boundaries. Yet the turn outward is more than a policy shift. For decades, Germany’s efforts to reconcile with the nations that suffered most from Nazi terror grounded its relations with allies and gave shape to who Germans thought they were. But the new reality, ushered in by the war in Ukraine, is challenging the country to go outside its comfort zone.

As Germany ventures beyond the West, confronted by its history of colonialism and other nations’ starkly different views of its past, it is being forced to revisit its sense of self. For a country that prides itself on historical responsibility and a sensitive culture of commemoration, this is no easy task. And it’s proving to be quite a lesson.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sharply revealed some of Germany’s blind spots. Why, many asked, was Russia the prime focus of Germany’s indemnification efforts for post-Soviet states? Why was Ukraine neglected? Some of the language of reconciliation now looks like moral cover for Germany’s economic ties with an aggressive Russian regime. The war has altered the economic and geopolitical calculus, too. Without access to Russian gas and in a profoundly changed global environment, Germany has begun to look for new partners, allies and markets.

To see the new trajectory, you need look only at German politicians’ itineraries in the past year. The defense minister, Boris Pistorius, spent a week last month in Asia, with stops in Singapore, Indonesia and India. India has been a particular focus: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to be hosted by Mr. Scholz, and they’ve since met frequently. Along with the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, Mr. Scholz has also spent considerable time in Africa. In a wide-ranging visit to the continent in May last year, he discussed — among other things — a gas deal with Senegal.

The German delegations, for the most part, have been warmly welcomed. Yet not everything is rosy. Countries like India don’t have the same view of the war and are reluctant to join the Western alliance supporting Ukraine, fearing the economic toll of alienating Russia. But sensitivity to historic injustices is just as much part of their reasoning. In many of the countries Germany hopes to woo, postcolonial resentment runs deep. And Germany, for all its overtures, is seen as part of the colonizing West.

That has been a bit of a shock. Germany simply does not perceive itself as a former colonial power. It’s true that compared with the British, French, Spanish and Dutch Empires, Germany’s started later and was smaller in scope. But the German Empire occupied vast lands mostly in the southwest and east of Africa, as well as in the Pacific. It was in one of its colonies that it committed the first officially recognized genocide, of the Herero and Nama people.

It took place in today’s Namibia from 1904 to 1908. German colonial authorities forced insurrectionists — including women and children — into the desert, where many died of starvation and dehydration. Others were detained in concentration camps under catastrophic conditions. Altogether, tens of thousands were murdered. It wasn’t until 2021 that Germany recognized the murder as genocide, offered an apology to Namibia and agreed to pay $1.35 billion in aid.

This chapter of German history gets little public attention. At school in Germany, children learn about the Holocaust from an early age, and rightly so. But they can still easily graduate without ever having heard of the genocide of the Herero and Nama or the brutal clampdown on the Maji Maji insurrection in a German colony called East Africa, which stretched over parts of today’s Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Colonialism neither features as part of the national narrative nor informs foreign policy.

In part that’s because — unlike in Britain and France — Germany relinquished its empire before the current state came into existence. But the lack of public commemoration may also have something to do with the fear of relativizing the Holocaust and even giving succor to antisemitism. It’s a reasonable concern, to be sure. Yet the monstrosity of the Holocaust, in its mind-blowing magnitude and singularity, has effaced from public memory the other atrocities Germany committed. The experiences of Ukraine and the Global South slipped from view. We were too busy patting ourselves on the back for being the champions of historic reckoning.

It’s getting harder to maintain such hubris, though. Germany is becoming increasingly multiethnic — according to the most recent census, in 2021, nearly a third of German residents were first- or second-generation migrants, compared with about a fifth in 2011 — and so are its political and cultural institutions. As a more diverse generation enters Parliament and takes on positions in regional and national government, so do new perspectives.

Black Lives Matter has had an impact, too, setting off debates about the naming of Berlin streets after German colonialists and fortifying the discussion on the restitution of stolen objects of African art. In December 2022, Germany returned some of the Benin Bronzes, 20 pieces of artwork stolen from what is today Nigeria by British soldiers and sold to Germany.

Not everyone agrees with the new approach. Some are skeptical of demands to recognize historic sensitivities and feel that some countries are instrumentalizing their histories to fend off the perfectly reasonable request to denounce the true imperialist, Russia. But the government is committed. Mr. Scholz is leading the way, delving into colonial history through books like Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of Empire,” about Asia’s intellectual emancipation from Europe, and David Van Reybrouck’s “Revolusi,” a history of Indonesia’s fight for independence.

This process of education is an utter necessity, not just for the chancellor. Germany’s history is unique and uniquely atrocious. But other countries have histories worth knowing, too. If Germany doesn’t want to be lost in the new world, it must reckon more fully with its past and empathize with the pain of others. Perhaps — tentatively, cautiously — it is beginning to do just that.

Anna Sauerbrey (@annakatrein) is an editor and writer at the German weekly Die Zeit.

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Posted on 05 Jul 2023 14:12 link