German colonial amnesia and the destruction of Gaza – Opinion

AIMÉ CÉSAIRE states in his ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ that colonialism decivilizes the colonizer, brutalizes him, degrades him, “to awaken him to buried instincts, to greedy violence, to racial hatred and to moral relativism” as a “universal regression.” .

As Césaire observes: “The colonizer, who to ease his conscience gets used to seeing the other man as an animal, gets used to treating him as an animal and objectively tends to transform himself into an animal.”

Almost parallel to Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, Césaire locates the roots of fascism in colonialism.

For Arendt, colonialism as a “laboratory of modernity” was the cradle of a mentality that a few decades later culminated in the Holocaust.

As Pascal Grosse notes, “by focusing on the implications of European colonialism for Europe itself,” Arendt understood colonial regimes as the prototype of totalitarianism.


It is no coincidence that Raphael Lemkin, who initiated the Genocide Convention, referred to the German empire’s extermination strategy in its southwest African colony.

As Dirk Moses suggests in his ‘Preface to Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History’, by “discovering the colonial roots of the concept of genocide itself,” one can “operationalize the original concept but ignored by Raphael Lemkin”. idea that genocides are intrinsically colonial and that they long predate the 20th century.”

While there is no direct route from Windhoek to Auschwitz, there is a trajectory that links the German colonial mentality to mass extinction at the hands of the Nazi regime.

A mentality that, to a certain extent, is still virulent in German society. It is alive – although in decline – in colonial amnesia.

As I document in ‘The Long Shadow of German Colonialism’, the colonial mentality did not end with the end of colonial rule.

The attack on the people of Gaza evokes memories and analogies with the forms of the first genocide of the 20th century in the German colony.

Southwest Africa. The Ovaherero then retired to the dry savanna of the Omaheke.

It was cordoned off by German soldiers and an extermination order declared that no prisoners were to be taken.

Those who sought refuge were shot or forced to return to the Omaheke to die of hunger and thirst.

It seems that these forms of genocidal warfare are now being repeated. And Germany is complicit by siding with the perpetrators.

A phrase from ‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan (1920-1970), one of the post-Holocaust German Jewish poets born in the Romanian region of Bucovina, comes to mind: “Death is a master of Germany, his eyes are blue.”

This constellation triggered a confrontation between the former colonizers and the former colonized: Namibia supported South Africa’s claim against Israel before the International Court of Justice, while Germany proclaimed itself a third party in defense of Israel 120 years after the start of the war in its colony, without any word in memory of that genocide.

This prompted a statement from the late President of Namibia, Hage Geingob: “The German government has yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil… Germany cannot morally express its commitment to the United Nations Convention against Genocide, including atonement for the genocide. in Namibia, while we support the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza.”


The reference to “never again” in dominant German discourse, a warning from Buchenwald survivors, illustrates a perverted instrumentalization of this obligation.

It justifies the destruction of Gaza and the indiscriminate mass killings. This misguided obsession has its roots in the trauma of the Holocaust. It results in the obfuscation that the Germans have given up criticizing the State of Israel, equating its government with the Jewish people.

The Germans have the audacity to denigrate those citizens of Israel and diaspora Jews who condemn the policies and crimes of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews.

In a tragically perverted way, this demonstrates that colonial asymmetries, including mass violence of a genocidal nature, remain an endorsed practice.

By elevating the Holocaust to a singularity, other genocides are degraded. The classification states that any comparison would apply in terms relative to the Holocaust and is therefore anti-Semitic in tendency. This betrays logic, since such an absolute statement can only be made based on comparisons.

Such a misguided notion of uniqueness downplays the trauma of other victims of the genocide. After all, for all those decimated by genocidal extermination strategies and their descendants, this is also unique.

That approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the Ovaherero and one-third to one-half of the Nama did not survive the German attack is also a unique trauma. Disrespecting their experiences is not only morally despicable and dehumanizing, but also another form of white supremacy. There is no European master narrative that has the right to negotiate and therefore deny similar experiences in the history of other peoples. “Never again” should mean “never again.”


Addressing Germany’s Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck on a talk show broadcast on German television, Deborah Feldman insisted “that there is only one legitimate lesson from the Holocaust.

And that is the absolute and unconditional defense of human rights for all. These values ​​lose their legitimacy when we apply them conditionally.”

And as Pankaj Mishra stressed, “if there is any lesson that can be drawn from the Shoah, it is: ‘Never again for anyone’.” Commenting on “comparison controversies,” Michael Rothberg demands that historical comparisons be taken seriously. They should be

evaluated with what he calls an “ethics of comparison.”

This serves as a reminder that cultivating the singularity of the Holocaust risks including a singularity of German remorse, at the expense of all other victims of mass violence carried out by Germans.

The selectivity we face as we witness the intentional mass starvation of the Palestinian civilian population as a war crime is the notorious conditionality of a white supremacist perspective, which claims the dominant heights in global asymmetrical power relations since the days of colonialism and imperialism.

What Aimé Césaire already categorically stated remains a challenge and a task in the fight for humanity: “Away with racism! Out with colonialism! They smell too much of barbarism.”

– Henning Melber studied political science and sociology. He is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and associated with the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.

– This article first appeared on; It is part of a series of blog articles published as part of his ‘The War on Gaza as a Discourse on

colonialism series

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