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Yes, Colonialism Was a Monstrosity

The German far-right party AfD recently invited a US academic to parliament to defend the country’s colonial past. But all the whitewashing in the world can’t hide the fact that colonialism was a horrendous, often genocidal affair.

The Bundestag in Berlin, Germany. Herman / flickr

The German parliament, the Bundestag, is rarely an exciting place, and even less often the site of debate and protest. But in December, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to scandalize the German public by hosting an academic lecture on German colonialism.

The speaker the AfD invited has made a name for himself as a colonial revisionist in the most literal sense: Bruce Gilley, professor of political science at Portland State University, became the subject of global debate in 2017 when the (small but renowned) journal Third World Quarterly published his essay “The Case for Colonialism.” In it, Gilley argued not only that colonialism was “objectively beneficial,” but also that it should be reconsidered as a model of governance for countries in the Global South today. Critics, while scandalized by the proposal itself, mainly focused on the question of how a paper that was “blind . . . to vast sections of colonial history,” contained major “empirical shortfalls,” and was essentially “the academic equivalent of a Trump tweet, clickbait with footnotes” made it through peer review. As it turned out, the paper had been rejected by three peer reviewers, and the decision of editors to publish it without consulting the editorial board of Third World Quarterly led to the resignation of most members of the board and the retraction of the article.

None of this has stopped Gilley from continuing to promote his argument to reconsider colonial modes of governance for “weak” states while at the same time complaining in the international press that his freedom of speech is under attack by “left-wing ideologues.”

So, what did Markus Frohnmaier and Petr Bystron, the two AfD parliamentarians who brought Gilley into the Bundestag, intend to achieve by inviting him to such a symbolical and politically relevant venue?

Like his “Case for Colonialism,” Gilley’s speech to the AfD is an apologia of colonialism based on spurious empirical evidence and a selective reading of the literature. But he also approvingly refers to revisionist colonial ideologues like Heinrich Schnee. Schnee was the last governor of German East Africa and a campaigner for the recovery of German colonies after they lost them in 1919; he joined the Nazi Party in 1933.

Gilley continues to downplay colonial violence by claiming its “reactive nature” and that it was an exception rather than at the very core of the colonial project. But the particularly brutal nature of the Herero genocide makes this stand out even more. Though not denying the actual events of the German war against the Herero and Nama, he claims it is “wrong to call this a genocide” and lays the full blame on the German military commander Lothar von Trotha, the author of the infamous “elimination order” against the Herero. Gilley calls him a “war-traumatized outsider” who “committed a war crime” and was “condemned and recalled” (none of this is supported by historical research; Trotha had the full support of the Kaiser and chief of general staff Alfred von Schlieffen, despite criticism from the Reich chancellor Bernhard von Bülow and other generals).

Gilley directly takes over the arguments of reactionary colonial revisionists in the Weimar Republic and transplants them into modern academic and public discussions of colonial history. Heinrich Schnee’s phrase “the lie of colonial guilt” (the title of his 1924 book is Die koloniale Schuldlüge, an influential work of colonial revisionism), says Gilley, “is now an accurate description of virtually the entire academic industry writing on colonialism.”

He goes further. Not only is academia lying about colonial “guilt,” but also, according to Gilley, the whole project of anti-colonialism in interwar Germany (a minority position held mostly by the Communist Party, parts of SPD membership, and left liberal movements, but organized through the Communist International’s League against Imperialism based in Germany) led to a “rejection of liberalism and cosmopolitanism” and “a return to German purity, exceptionalism, and separateness,” which paved the way to Auschwitz.

Gilley’s presentation fits well into the AfD’s own efforts at writing an “alternative” history of Germany in the twentieth century, one that rejects the “guilt cult” (“Schuldkult”) of the memory of the Holocaust, as well as of colonial violence and genocide. But it is also tied to the AfD’s stance on development aid and its extreme economic imperialism.

Frohmaier and Bystron are the AfD’s representatives for development policy and foreign policy, respectively. Bystron is a chairman in the parliamentary foreign committee; Frohnmaier is a member of the committee for economic cooperation and development. Both have been mentioned in the Verfassungsschutz (internal secret service) reports on the far right (Bystron was under observation by the Verfassungsschutz until he became an MP), and both have contacts to right-wing extremists in Germany, such as the German Identitarian Movement. Bystron made headlines when, during an official trip as an MP to South Africa, he met with members of Suidlanders, a white supremacist group that promotes the “white genocide” conspiracy among the international far right, and took part in a shooting training. Asked about the group by German TV, he called them “an organization of South African civil society.”

Inviting Gilley to the parliament to talk about the “positive” character of German colonialism is an obvious provocation in a time when pressure mounts on the German government to negotiate with Herero representatives on reparations, and to take concrete measures in the area of provenance research and restitution of cultural artifacts and human remains stolen during colonial times. But it also points to the AfD’s gradual efforts to develop a far-right profile in the areas of foreign policy and economic cooperation. And it points to an increasingly connected international far right, organizationally and ideologically.

In an AfD motion to the Bundestag, submitted the same day as Gilley’s presentation — December 11, 2019 — these connections become clearer. It demands the Bundestag declare that colonialism “should be regarded in a nuanced way.” This means taking account of the “dark sides” (which, to the AfD, only means the colonial wars in Tanzania and Namibia), but refusing any reparations and emphasizing the “beneficial sides of the German colonial era” in the public, in the “dialogue with representatives of former colonies,” and in school curricula. The motion downplays the “dark sides” by denying the systemic genocidal nature of the German war against Herero resistance and claiming it was an outlier in what was otherwise a benevolent colonial rule. These are formulations reminiscent of both Gilley’s rhetoric and the Oxford “Ethics and Empire” project, which was criticized as taking a “balance-sheet” approach to imperialism. The AfD also denounces most of academic colonial history, especially post- and decolonial approaches, as being inspired by “cultural Marxism,” a conspiracy theory popular with the far right, from US and UK alt-right groups to the European Identitarian movement and terrorists such as Anders Behring Breivik.

This memory politics of the AfD also translates into a far-right platform for current foreign and development policy. Frohnmaier and Bystron pursue the same mixture of economic nationalism and racism in the realm of foreign policy that the AfD has become known for in its national platform. Frohnmaier wants to abolish German development aid (a “lefty helper industry,” according to him) and replace it with an interventionist strategy designed to open “new markets for the German economy,” citing China’s “new Silk Road” strategy as a model to emulate. He also sees a “population explosion” in Africa, which he claims is “the biggest challenge of our time.”

Gilley’s references to the beneficial nature of German colonialism, his downplaying of the Herero genocide, and his rehashing of Schnee’s narrative of the “guilt lie” are par for the course for a party whose chairman called the Nazi era a “mere bird shit” in German history, and whose prominent cadre called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame.” Thus, the AfD has found in Gilley a useful ideologue delivering a historical narrative that fits its reactionary revision of German history, while firmly embedding it in international far-right discourse.