The subject of colonialism, which you wrote about in your last book, "Wessen Erinnerung zählt?" (lit: whose memory counts?) is equally complicated.

Terkessidis: I am glad that we have now started to talk about it in Germany, but I do think that the debate is too much limited to the colonies in Africa. The German imperial project was also a very continental one. For 150 years, Polish-speaking areas were part of Prussia or the German Empire. Why don't we also talk about colonialism there? Then there was the "Drive to the East ", the project of economic penetration and moral conquest by foreign cultural policy in Eastern Europe, the Balkans or the Ottoman Empire. It was a different concept of colonialism to that of France or Britain. Yet it is still having an impact on many levels today, whether through the widespread cliches about Poland or in the austerity policy towards Greece.

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Why is there so little debate about this today?

Terkessidis: Until recently, there was little knowledge about colonialism at all. The memory of the Shoah occupied the foreground because the crime was so monstrous. Since the nineties, however, with the debates about forced labour and the crimes of the Wehrmacht, other victims have also come into focus. If I let 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war starve to death behind the front lines, what kind of opinion do I have of these people? Is that not imperial, colonial thinking? What mentality is it that makes it possible to burn down 1600 villages in Greece? The "forgotten victims" of the Second World War are now being remembered, the victims in Poland, in the former Yugoslavia, in Ukraine. I would argue in favour of linking the debate on colonialism with the debate on the "forgotten victims".

How do Poles or Greeks react when they are described by you as formerly colonised?

Terkessidis: I have not yet had the chance to discuss that with them. The term "crypto-colonialism" has however already been coined in Greece.

I guess we also find it difficult to imagine the Poles as a colonised people.

Terkessidis: Because they are "white"? German Jews didn't look any different either, so people tried to give them big noses or other "racial" characteristics. The SS even examined the "Volksdeutsche" from the Baltic States to see if they were also "racially" German enough. When the impoverished peasants from Oklahoma migrated westward in the USA during the Depression, they were given the same clichés as the blacks: stupid, useless, violent. In crime novels of the twenties, Greeks and Armenians have the same image as the Jews: they were considered sleazy types of traders. Racist ideas are not just about skin colour.

Historian Achille Mbembe is under fire for his criticism of Israel, but also because, like others, he draws a line from colonial atrocities like the genocide of the Herero to the Holocaust. This is held against him as a relativization.

Terkessidis: The author Michael Rothberg distinguishes between competitive and multidirectional memory. The former prevails because one wants to achieve something politically. The Holocaust has also become a global model for racist victim experiences. This is why black activists have spoken of slavery as a kind of Holocaust. At the same time, Israel is very sensitive to the uniqueness of its own victim experience. I am in favour of multidirectional forms of remembrance, because they enable us to move forward together.

How do you interpret the debate surrounding Mbembe?

Terkessidis: Even German historians have said that Germany anticipated its subsequent methods of extermination policy in German South West Africa. And nobody has got upset about that to date. Nobody outside of Germany can understand what the fuss is about. That the federal anti-Semitism commissioner has, so to speak, decreed how a "foreign scholar" should talk about the Holocaust! If Mbembe is to be linked to anti-Semitism, then which one of us is not anti-Semitic? Micha Brumlik is already talking about a new McCarthyism.

Shouldn't our Nazi past and the process of coming to terms with it have led to a particularly progressive and open approach to minorities?

Terkessidis: I don't think we have made bad progress in the politics of remembrance. The debate on overseas colonialism had scarcely begun when the coalition parties entered the subject in their coalition agreement. The decision of the ministers of culture on restitution also came quickly. How that will go down, we will see. But these decisions are great successes.

Basically, we should now make a kind of anti-racist inventory of the laws, the authorities and the police. And from our previous experiences with remembrance policy, we need to take a critical look at "our" culture, from its monuments and its institutions to the lessons we can learn from its history: what is the overriding perspective? Wouldn't it make more sense to understand Germany as a node in a transnational network rather than as a container? We should not see it as a terrible thing, but as a programme of innovation essential to making the country work better for everyone.

Interview conducted by Jorg Hantzschel

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2020

As a publicist, Mark Terkessidis is primarily concerned with the subject of racism. In his latest book, "Wessen Erinnerung zählt?"  (lit. whose memory counts?) he examines the legacy of German colonial history.

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