In September 2017 the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, ‘Alternative for Germany’), a right-wing political party, became the third largest party in the German parliament. The success of the AfD was explained with reference to contemporary politics. Some argued that it happened because of Angela Merkel’s migration polices, others that it was because of the crisis in the EU, or simply because the rise of the right is a more general Euro-American phenomenon, reflecting a crisis of identity and, especially, of white masculinity. It was not unusual to read about a ‘structural break’ or a ‘black day for democracy’ – expressions that convey a sense that the world one lives in has changed, that something new has started.
I do not believe so. Rather the results of the German election of September 2017, the Austrian election of October 2017, the rise of Le Pen, the bigotry of Brexit, Trump in the USA, reflect something which has always been there, something that has haunted Euro-America for centuries: white supremacy, racism and, its repressed cousin, colonial amnesia.
I grew up in Germany and went to school in Germany. In high school we read, and indeed celebrated, Immanuel Kant’s What is Enlightment (1784): sapere aude, ‘dare to know’. Yet schools, as Paolo Freire has long reminded us, are instruments of power, and we only knew what we were meant to know; the curriculum was a carefully curated canon. We studied the French revolution in great detail, but we never learnt about the Haitian revolution. We studied the industrial revolution, but did not understand that it was financed through brutal colonial exploitation. We learnt about the Holocaust, but not about the colonial atrocities that were committed by Germany (Click here for a discussion of German colonial amnesia).
As recently as 2016, Der Spiegel, a historically left-wing political magazine, published an article which asked rhetorically: ‘Was there really a Herero genocide?’. A central persona in this article is Hinrich Schneider-Waterberg, who is described as a ‘friendly’ Namibian farmer of German descent. Schneider-Waterberg is also an amateur historian who has set out to show that genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama never happened.
Colonialism and racism can be understood as a form of ‘intangible heritage’, preserved in a variety of cultural practices.
The article praises the revisionist amateur historian. Historical work which discusses the genocide – in which eighty percent of Ovaherero and fifty percent of Nama were brutally murdered – is decried as ‘Marxist’, and the Blue Book (1918), a meticulous account of Germany’s colonial violence, is portrayed as anti-German propaganda. The work of generations of historians is questioned, while the hobby-historiography of a German settler is given pride of place.
The article is a symptom; a symptom of colonial revisionism and a deep-seated racism that never went away, because its roots – located in the grammar of colonial rule – were made invisible, the memory was erased. Yet, like anything that has been repressed, the violence of colonialism does not simply disappear because we don’t talk about it.
The heritage of colonialism remains present and visible in everyday life. And so does the racism that was integral to it. Colonialism and racism can be understood as a form of ‘intangible heritage’, preserved in a variety of cultural practices. Heritage, in other words, is not only that which is good and wholesome, that which nourishes us by reminding us of our history; heritage can also be dark and troubled, repressed and repressive, celebrating exploitations and articulating racist beliefs. Children’s songs are a disturbing example of this.
Teaching songs at school and in other educational-social contexts has a long tradition. The aim is not simply to develop musical skills but also to instill national values (such as patriotism and industriousness), and a standard repertoire of songs, sung by generation after generation, creates a sense of belonging and identity.
Among the repertoire of German children’s songs are those that evoke Germany’s colonial empire, and that are overtly racist. There are songs such as Zehn kleine Negerlein, the German rendition of a standard in American blackface minstrel shows. It became popular around 1885, coinciding with the date of the Congo Conference in Berlin. Reflecting colonial experience more directly is Heiss brennt die Equatorsonne (‘Hot shines the sun at the equator’), a song that represents African voices as a cacophony of gibberish, and African people as either childlike or violent (first included in a humorous song collection, Der Kilometerstein – Eine Lustige Sammlung in the 1930s).
And then there is Zehn Nackte Neger, a racist ditty which has been transmitted mostly orally. The phrase became productive beyond the song. It is listed in dictionaries as a phraseologism, and appears even in academic books: ‘to be cold like ten naked niggers’ was given as recently as 2001 as an example sentence in a publication on everyday German language.
A quick internet search shows that these songs remain part of a tradition of popular songs. They are discussed on various online notice boards, and are performed on YouTube. To mention just one example: a short video clip of a group of children at a holiday camp in 2011. Together with their caregivers they sing Zehn Nackte Neger. Many of the comments that follow the video deny that the song could be racist and position it as innocent fun: ‘ALL the children in the video know, that this is ONLY a SONG’.
In The Everyday Language of White Racism (2008), Jane Hill reminds us that racist practices are often camouflaged as humor. In these songs overtly racist slurs are repositioned as ‘only a song’, suggesting that if the speaker (or singer) says ‘I didn’t mean to be racist, it was just fun’, then it should not be seen as racist. Not only members of the KluKluxKlan insist on their right to use racially offensive speech, but so do ordinary people.
Colonial amnesia – the denial of the violence of the colonial past – works together with everyday racism in making the ground fertile for the political rise of the right. In Germany and elsewhere.