Colonial perpetration loses the protection of an historical area. Time for reparations and a new internationalism.
When the statue of Edward Colston was overthrown in Bristol, a new era began. Not because it was the first act of this kind, but because the figure himself, the slave trader as a philanthropist, represents such a highly condensed symbol that the mind can work on it again and again. And because, of course, the fall into the harbor basin, which I initially found raw and repulsive, will be unforgettable as soon as you understand that it only reenacted the actual rawness. Colston’s Royal African Company threw bodies like garbage into the sea from their ships.
The Brit symbolizes in a particularly drastic way a double-faced character, which is characteristic of countless European figures on memorial bases: benefactors from the perspective of the respective metropolis, evildoers from the perspective of another part of the world. The port collapse has brutally overridden this division: here it is there, there is no longer any inside or outside, no protected interior space for a separate view of white history and for an undisturbed veiling of perpetrators.
How suddenly a tangible, tangible globality arises has a lot to do with the pandemic. The experience of social exclusion in the crisis gave the very first George Floyd protests the force that then spread from scene to scene, to the better-off part of world society, where the shock of mobility restrictions gave a new thought to one’s own place in Had triggered inside & outside.
Not that anyone can explain it all clearly, this bizarre combination of factors. But that’s how global history works. And while the idea of postcolonial globalization just seemed to indicate something more future, it has become a present under the hand.
Guilt and responsibility
The fact that there is no longer any inside or outside was already the lesson from the debate about Achille Mbembe: Germans have to learn to deal with the fact that there is a different view of the Shoah (and thus also of Israel) in the global south. Now the monumental falls raise the question of historical perpetration and responsibility today from another side.
They mark an end to white immunity – and the term should be understood in two ways: as protection against law enforcement and as an organic defense against attacks. Both are melting away for Europeans: They no longer live under the protection of a world order that has kept all demands for accountability from their necks for so long. And their psychological structure, their self-image, is no longer sufficiently vaccinated against uncertainty. The latter certainly does not apply to everyone, but fortunately for a growing number.
As far as attitudes towards colonial crimes were concerned, until yesterday we were in a phase similar to the 1950s and 1960s with regard to the Shoah: no perpetrators, no collective responsibility; dodge, play down. How to deal with guilt and responsibility from two historical periods can be compared. Wouldn’t it be desirable to learn from the major omissions in dealing with Nazi perpetrators to look at colonial crimes?
A former SS guard from the Stuthof concentration camp is currently on trial in Hamburg; the prosecution accuses the then 17-year-old of murder in more than 5,000 cases. Unlike in previous decades, the principle now applies: whoever participated in the destruction apparatus was guilty.
But how is perpetration defined for the colonial era? We are happy to refer to the “ambivalence” of historical figures. Bismarck was not an advocate of colonial politics, although on the document on the division of Africa at the top, steep and straightforward, his signature is weighted with plenty of red sealing wax.
No protection from disturbance
Ambivalence is the more noble vocabulary for the double-facedness that Leopold II embodies in the best way, the builder of Brussels – the best time for Belgium, the worst for the Congo. Some are horrified by the idea that the stone Leopold is being cut off performatively, more than the fact that this happened to thousands of children because they did not have enough rubber in the basket. But it doesn’t help to turn away.
The end of white immunity means that there is no longer any protection against the disturbance. Whites are forced to look into an abyss where they see torture, castration and the tearing out of viscera, they see Germans, Dutch, French, Italians, British, there are more and more who are now coming into view, just entering the down-to-earth Swiss stage as slave trader.
If there is no longer any inside or outside, no shielded internal space for historical politics, then another limit has also been blown: the temporal one. How long ago an injustice was lost has become less relevant because the principle now applies: no injustice has passed as long as it is not recognized by the person who caused it. This acknowledgment will have to be more than the windy excuses that British institutions are currently writing in series: because they owe their creation to the profits from the slave trade and later, at the end, to the state compensation of the traders.
Compensating the perpetrators instead of the victims is an unbearable thought; how long he was endured! A global movement for reparations will become the largest justice movement of the 21st century, according to the Caribbean states today. To support this, European anti-racism must prove its seriousness. Is there the strength to do this? It would be nothing less than a new internationalism.