Tagungsbericht “Confronting the Colonial Past!” (28.2.-2.3.18)

Hamburg as a mayor transportation hub was key in establishing the German colonial empire. Various sites of memory bear witness to the City’s colonial legacy. Lieux de Memoire like the University of Hamburg (founded as the “Colonial Institute” in 1908) or the Baakenhafen from where Lothar von Trotha and his “Schutztruppe” embarked to commit the Herero-Nama-Genocide, 1904-1908. In 2014, the City of Hamburg founded the Research Centre Hamburg’s (post-)colonial legacy at the University of Hamburg to research and evaluate the cities violent colonial past. The conference “Confronting the Colonial Past!” explored discourses of colonial violence and visuality plus the interconnections of colonialism and globalization, and put a spotlight on (contemporary) (post-)colonial representations as well as on discourses of commemoration.

Jürgen Zimmerer (Hamburg), director of the Research Centre, opened the conference with a programmatic introduction that classified colonialism as a dynamic form of proto-globalization. Zimmerer highlighted that Hamburg represented the economic and cultural dimension of German colonialism and that the city was full of these colonial traces. Uncharted lieux de mémoire like Hagenbecks Zoo with its “Human Zoo”-exhibitions or the Chamber of Commerce that have to be identified and historically contextualized. Zimmerer emphasized that the University of Hamburg was a pillar of colonial power before it also became a site of critical engagement with colonial history in 1967/68 with the demolition of the Wissmann-Memorial, and that it now had to play an active part in establishing a city wide postcolonial memory concept as well as in the process of reconciliation.

Den vollständigen Tagungsbericht können Sie hier lesen.

Oliver Huck (Hamburg), Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, underlined that the Faculty is eminently engaged with the colonial past and that he is grateful that the successful Research Centre is part of the UHH. Hamburg’s “Contributions” to colonialism were the focus of the first panel, that was opened by Kim Sebastian Todzi’s (Hamburg) talk on Hamburg’s merchants and the city’s rise to Germany’s “Engine of Empire”. While Hamburg merchants in the 19th century initially benefited significantly from British free trade policy and informal colonialism, the memorandum of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce of July 1883 represents a paradigm shift, as it actively demanded the annexation of colonies in Africa. Todzi concluded, that colonialism and capitalism are deeply intertwined and identified Hamburg’s merchants as driving force behind the formation the German colonial Empire.

Caronline Herfert (Hamburg) addressed colonial discourses and performances in Hamburg’s entertainment sector around 1900. Hamburg’s theatres like the “Thalia” or Hagenbecks human zoo addressed colonial events in various ways – for instance by playing embarking troops to the Herero-Nama-genocide – and racist performance practices like blackface merged with the Orientalist discourse in a colonial “staging of the Other”. Florian Wagner (Erfurt) challenged three carefully crafted myths about Hamburg, the “capital of port pride”, and its harbor. Wagner disproved the myth that “Hamburg is a city of free trade” with the city’s massive involvement in the Reich’s sea power, and foiled Hamburg’s claim of advocating “soft colonialism” by emphasizing the city’s heavy historic involvement in human trafficking. Finally, Wagner deconstructed the narrative that Hamburg is cosmopolitan by referencing the Hamburg Institute for Tropical Medicine and the racialized medical Cordon sanitaire it laid around the African colonies and the borders of the East.

In the evening Carsten Brosda, Hamburg’s Minister of Culture and Media, delivered his well-received Welcome Address that integrated the conference main themes in a political context. Brosda highlighted the fact that colonial amnesia was dwindling, “and that is”, said Secretary Brosda, “a good thing”. Brosda stated, that the conference was a milestone in revisiting Hamburg’s colonial history, and that with the “Koalitionsvertrag” (coalition treaty between CDU, CSU and SPD) the topic of (post)colonial Cultures of Remembrance has reached the federal level. Then Brosda formulated a sentence that resulted in sustained applause: “Human remains should be buried, and we should simply accept the consequence of this statement.” Brosda closed his speech with the notion that it is important to sharpen our perception of the historic effects of colonialism and to use political instruments like “Städtepartnerschaft”/twin cities to intensify the North-South-Dialogue.

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