Culture ministers from each of Germany’s 16 states have announced a landmark agreement to identify, publicize and ultimately repatriate cultural artifacts looted during the colonial era. The move marks an important step in the nation’s efforts to reckon with its imperial past.
The eight-page agreement was signed late last week by the ministers, the foreign office and representatives of various cities and municipalities, reports Christopher F. Schuetze of the New York Times. Officials said they would work with museums on developing repatriation procedures in collaboration with the countries from which the contentious objects were looted.
The stated plans for this process, reports Catherine Hickley of the Art Newspaper, involve creating and publishing inventories of items in ethnological collections, conducting provenance research and setting up a help desk that will provide information on colonial heritage. The goal is to determine which artifacts “were acquired in a way that ... would no longer be acceptable today,” the officials said, according to the Agence France-Presse. A priority will be returning looted human remains; Germany, the AFP notes, “is unique among the powers in having large holdings of African human remains at museums, universities and in private collections.”
Germany—which began to aggressively expand its colonial reach during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II—once had colonies across Africa, including in modern-day Namibia, Togo, Cameroon and Tanzania. And like other colonial powers, Germany was prone to brutally enforce its rule on local populations. German troops suppressed rebellion in South West Africa, for instance, by massacring nearly all of the Herero ethnic group and approximately half of the Nama ethnic group. In East Africa, Germany killed more than 70,000 people during the Maji Maji rebellion of the early 20th century.
Germany lost its colonies in the Treaty of Versailles that brought an end to World War I. Scholars say that this controversial period of the country’s history was largely overshadowed by what came next: World War II, the Holocaust and the cleaving of the country during the Cold War. “The public historical debate in Germany was completely absorbed by consideration of the Nazi past and of the ramifications of division,” of the New York Times in a separate article.
In recent years, however, some Germans have been grappling more with the country’s imperial past—including the sordid realities behind the trove of foreign artifacts that were amassed during that time. Much of the discussion has focused on the new Humboldt Forum, a sprawling museum that is due to open later this year in a restored Berlin palace and will house a huge collection of ethnological artifacts. According to Bowley, “[m]any of the objects in the Prussian heritage foundation’s massive collection were gathered in a spirit of scientific inquiry as explorers brought objects back from around the globe to preserve them and learn from them ... But countless others, according to the critics, were seized by force, or given by people who had no choice.”
Spurred by French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to facilitate a full restitution of looted African objects, Germany recently allocated 1.9 million euros (around 2,150,000 USD) to provenance research for cultural artifacts brought to Germany during colonial times. It has also repatriated a number of important objects; just last month, for instance, the Linden Museum in Stuttgart returned the bible and cattle whip of a Nama tribe leader to Namibia.
The officials behind the new agreement stressed the importance of continuing to move forward with restitutions. “What was once appropriated through violence and coercion,” said Hamburg's Senator for Culture Carsten Brosda, “cannot be morally seen as something that was lawfully acquired.”