The information sheet shows Hendrik Witbooi on a $ 200 note from his home country, Namibia. Middle school students learn that Witbooi fought against German occupation in what is now Namibia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Germany carried out genocide against the Herero and Nama people in the country, which European powers called German Southwest Africa at the time. In Namibia, Witbooi is still revered as a hero for his struggle for freedom from German colonizers.
But school students in Germany are highly unlikely to know anything about Witbooi. Information sheets about Witbooi compiled by the German association Together for Africa (Together for Africa) in the hope that interested teachers will use it in their classrooms, but it is not part of official teaching materials in German schools.
This is because, today, official textbooks and school curricula in German schools almost completely ignore the 30-year history of German colonialism in Africa and the western Pacific. This topic is not taught at all in some German states and is only alluded to in other countries.
Calls for reform
That’s why textbooks and curricula should be reviewed, said Abigail Fugah of Cologne who started the petition with this aim. Nearly 95,000 people signed.
“What is currently being taught in schools is not enough,” said Fugah to DW. She recounts that when she was at school, teachers hardly discussed the topics of German colonial history and racism at all, even though she herself had suffered enough from racism herself. “I didn’t have an easy time at school. Both of my parents are from Ghana,” he said.
From 1884 to 1916, German colonial officials were also in charge of western Africa, in what is now the Togol Republic and parts of Ghana. What was known as the “Togoland” was considered a “model colony” by the German Empire. But here too, the Germans exploited natural resources, denied the Togolese people’s rights and punished them with beatings.
Fugah believes that current racism in Germany can only be understood if people know about this colonial history. “If black kids are old enough to experience racism, white kids are old enough to learn something about it,” he said.
Criticism and support from teachers
Fugah said that his petition received mixed reactions. “Most of the critics are teachers. They accuse us of ignoring the fact that colonial history has become part of the curriculum. But the problem is that the topic is not mandatory, “he said. The killing of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, World War Two, the Cold War, and the division of Germany are important topics in German history classes, but there is little time left for other topics.
Unless the teacher takes up that time, as Imke Stahlmann did. He is a teacher at Farmsen Middle School in Hamburg. “We have been dealing with the topic of German colonial history relatively intensively with students in their final years for about 15 years,” he told DW. After all, he said, colonial history was a “very relevant topic for understanding so many international problems today.”
That’s why he finds it important to see the connection between colonial history and everyday racism, he says – more than ever this year, after Black Lives Matter protests around the world. He said his students were highly motivated to be involved with the topic, even outside of lessons.
As part of this, Stahlmann’s students visit a German-East African war memorial in the Jenfeld district of Hamburg, where Germany’s colonial history is actually celebrated in a memorial made during the Nazi era. The Askari Relief, for example, featured colonial officers as heroes and leaders who were followed obediently by local soldiers. “We thought about how this memorial is treated,” said Stahlmann. “And the students are really starting to come up with alternative proposals.”
Since 2018, the Farmsen school has partnered with Chang’ombe Middle School in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. “We realized that we were tackling very similar topics in history lessons in both schools, including imperialism and colonial history,” said Stahlmann. “So we came up with an idea to give our students a chance to work on this theme together.”
So students from the former colonial power, Germany, and the former colony, German East Africa, exchange ideas about history with them. This culminated in mutual visits. In Hamburg, students film together at the colonial monument.
Abigail Fugah and other activists realized that not all schools could hold exchanges like this. But he hopes all students in Germany have the opportunity to engage with Germany’s colonial past and heritage and with their own racism. Fugah wants to play a role herself: Currently, she is undergoing anti-racism training at school.