Britain needs to confront its colonial past at a European level

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As Britain fumbles its way towards the exit of the EU, or gives up before being unceremoniously ejected, it is in danger of losing sight of the European perspective precisely at at time, and on a topic, where it matters most.

The European perspective

I was recently at a Körber Stiftung event where Cambridge Professor of History Sir Christopher Clark said many events central to Europe’s history have, over the centuries, been framed as national events when, in fact, they stemmed from phenomena that affected the entire continent. They examples he gave were the French Revolution and the failed push for a German state in 1848. His 2015 book “Sleepwalkers” challenges the prevailing view of Germany as the guilty party in the First World War, zooming out to view matters Europe-wide.

British navel-gazing

At the same time, a recent talk show on German television made clear the extent to which Britain is simply without a voice on important European issues. The British Ambassador, Sir Sebastian Wood, was virtually silent on on everything except Brexit. Populism in Hungary, suppression of the rule of law in Poland, escalation of the conflict between Italy and the European Commission, and Macron’s attempt to start a dialogue with Germany on the future of Europe – which Germany has thus far pretty much turned its nose up at – the British representative was unable (or more likely unwilling) to say anything on these issues.

With the best of intentions, even most British people who would prefer to remain in the EU are not seized of these issues, and never have been. This isn’t necessarily their fault: it is only since moving to Germany, and as a result of speaking the language, that I can inform myself about them. It also took me a while to understand the German love of Europe and for it to capture my imagination. Until Britain emerges from this era of intense navel-gazing, it is unlikely that people will lift their heads and look around them.

But there is an issue that I would add to Clark’s list: colonialism. In my view, Britain is going to have to take a good look in the mirror whatever happens with Brexit. And when it does so, it needs to understand that much of the ideology that enabled colonialism was shared with the rest of Europe.

Britain’s colonial history – racism wasn’t invented in the 1970s

Britain’s colonial legacy is central to its future in at least two ways. One, because Britain’s inflated self-image leads it to believe it will be welcomed to do “free trade” with former colonies and other countries world wide. In fact, its trade with former colonies in the past didn’t really justify the name: it was coercion. Two, because (rather contradictorily) it thinks it still has the power to push other nations around if they do not comply with its wishes – see its treatment of Ireland and the EU as a whole.

Additionally, if we British are to move forward in understanding how subliminal racist attitudes cause us to marginalise minority groups, with all the social ills this causes, we are going to have to understand our history as a path to uncovering our own subliminal biases.

Discussions about Britain’s colonial legacy certainly take place, but the topic seems quite niche. My impression is that Germany – and possibly other European countries – is less allergic to anything that destabilises its rose-tinted spectacles view of its past. In Germany’s case, it is obvious why: it doesn’t have any rose-tinted spectacles and is well used to confronting its history in all its brutality. In Britain, meanwhile, presenting a “warts ‘n all” history invites allegations of political correctness and prompts attempts to relativise Britain’s crimes before even trying to dispassionately understand what went on.

An honorable exception was the Guardian’s recent work on unconscious racism. While most British people probably do not realise that these thought patterns exist, I suspect they will not be able to appreciate the true depth of racism. Reading Shashi Tharoor’s account of the British empire’s exploitation of India (which has prompted much of what I write here), it is clear that racism is more complex than discrimination on account of some physical trait. It goes back over hundreds of years, even if most Brits are unaware of this or are primed to put it to the back of our minds. Growing up when I did, you might have thought racism was invented in the 1970s.

Pan-European discussions already exist

Macron’s commitment to facilitate the return of cultural artefacts that were acquired under duress, or unknown circumstances, during colonial rule has recently sparked a European discussion (or probably interest in a pre-existing discussion such that it came to my attention). Barely a week goes by when this isn’t mentioned in the German press. The topic was covered in the members’ magazine for the Hamburger Kunsthalle, of which I am a supporting member, in the form of an interview with Carsten Brosda, the Head of the Hamburg Authority for Culture and Media.

Hamburg is the only city in Germany to establish and staff a university research area into the city’s post-colonial legacy. Its Museum of Ethnography was recently rebranded MARKk (don’t ask) and while it appears to me (as a semi-informed outsider) rather directionless at the moment, there is certainly a recognition that something has to be done about the wealth of objects of dubious provenance.

Although short-lived, Germany had colonies and Hamburg was at the centre of world-wide trade with its own colonies and those of others, including Britain. One of its major tourist attractions, the red-brick Speicherstadt, or warehouse city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was at the centre of Hamburg’s status as a trading hub.

The aforementioned Brosda was part of the panel that negotiated the inclusion of a clause in the coalition agreement on a national level that anchored a commitment to address Germany’s colonial crimes.

None of this is perfect: in fact, Germany’s commitment to atoning for its crimes does not extend to financial compensation for the twentieth century’s first genocide in Nambia, in which it eradicated tens of thousands of Nama and Herero people. Its current Africa Commissioner, Gunter Nooke, floated “voluntary colonialism” as a means of solving Africa’s problems – based, of course, on the assumption that modern colonial powers would act in the interests of African people and not abuse their power.

But it’s a start.

On a European level

So what does all this have to do with Europe? Well a conversation is already beginning on a European level, as shown above regarding returning treasures found in museums. Many of the issues that Britain would have to deal with need to be faced in many other European countries too: the origin of colonial ideals under the guise of pursuing knowledge; the intertwining of science, conflict, and commerce. The trade between European nations in goods plundered from colonial territories. The fact that European countries divided up Africa at the Berlin Conference from 1884-85 – all adhering to the idea that it was theirs to divvy up among themselves, and not for the inhabitants to object.

Above all, it is because the development of Europe’s image as a place of freedom, rationality and Enlightenment values were predicated on ideals of European, and, as hard as it is to stomach, white supremacy. In the past I have heard British people defending the Empire on the grounds that we weren’t quite as awful as the Belgians in the Congo; or that slavery was abolished relatively early. From a European perspective, these arguments are pretty meaningless.

It’s a common past that needs to be addressed together. Why not pool ideas, experiences and solutions instead of reinventing the wheel in every country?

“The finest race on Earth”

I’ll leave you with a quote I was confronted with when I opened an edition of GeoEpoche (German history magazine) dedicated to the history of the British Empire. You can find the whole text in Confession of a Faith, 1877. I was initially in disbelief at the racism it contains:

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

Admitting that the empire was based on similar ideals to those Britain fought to eradicate during the Second World War might painfully destabilise our self-image. The tea, Victoria sponge, common decency, exotic foods, zoos, museums: all of them an impossible fiction, unimaginable without a dismal world of inexcusable exploitation just off camera.

Featured image: John Heaven