Curator Bonaventure Ndikung on Why Germany’s Struggle against Imperialism Is Far from Over

From the reconstructed City Palace to the Reichsflagge, the symbols and ideologies of colonialism are as alive as ever

BY Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in Opinion | 20 OCT 20

This autumn, as Germany celebrates its 30th reunification, the Humboldt Forum was set to open in a reconstructed City Palace – and, with it, the controversial symbol of a Christian cross on its cupola stemming from Germany’s imperial times. Is Germany’s imperial history feeding reactionary fervour? In this letter from Berlin, the Cameroon-born curator Bonaventure Ndikung – who, this October, was awarded the Order of Merit of Berlin – reflects on the ways the country’s own cultural history is being misused by a motley coalition of voices today.

On Saturday 29 August, an estimated 40,000 people – driven by neo-Nazi and proto-fascist slogans and carrying fascist and imperial insignia – marched on the streets of Berlin, supposedly in protest at the current COVID-19 measures prescribed by the German government. The following day, my nine-year-old Black son cornered me with an almost checkmate question: ‘Papa, what is a Reichsflagge (imperial flag) and why are all these people waving it?’

On our way to the playground that Sunday afternoon, he had seen the covers of several newspapers on newsstands depicting a sea of people carrying black, white and red flags – some bearing the Prussian eagle, the Reichsadler. While on the playground, he had eavesdropped on multiple conversations between adults expressing shock at the number of people who had attended the demonstration neither wearing masks nor practicing social distancing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dismayed by the violence that had erupted. But it was the symbolism of the imperial flag that had most caught his attention.

How can you explain to a nine year old why, in 2020, thousands of people would flock to the capital of one of the strongest democracies in the world, carrying the insignias of monarchy, to advocate a return to some form of empire? Essentially, these people are attacking the democratic structure that allows them to protest freely, calling to abrogate the system that has enabled their privileges, while putting themselves and others at risk. The images that come to mind instantly are people biting the hands that feed them, or sawing off the branch on which they sit.

Placards and a German imperial flag left in front of the Reichstag building after the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers on 19 August 2020 in Berlin. Courtesy and photograph: John Macdugall/AFP via Getty Images)

How can you explain to a nine year old that varying constellations of the imperial flag’s black, white and red can be found as far back as the coats of arms of several member states of the Hanseatic League during the late middle ages? Or that those same colours were adopted not only by Prussia but as a tricolour for the North German Confederation (1867–70) and, later, the German Reich, from 1871 until its fall in 1918? Or that, despite the imperial flag being banned during the Weimar Republic (1919–33), it was still used as a Naval war insignia and by the nationalist, right-wing German National People’s Party, which was a conglomeration of monarchists, nationalists, antisemites and xenophobes? Or that the Nazis banned the flag of the Weimar Republic and reinstated the colours of the Empire when they first rose to power in 1933, before ceding to the swastika in 1935? Or that it is exactly these same sentiments of xenophobia, nationalism and antisemitism that remain the lubricants of the machinery that propagates the carrying of the imperial flag today? In fact, a variation of the imperial flag was still occasionally hoisted on Wehrmacht buildings, Navy vessels, military aircraft and other war machines until 1945.

Although the imperial flag is not officially banned in Germany today, it remains an open secret that this tricolour symbolizes the affiliation of neo-Nazis (and old Nazis) to monarchist and national-socialist ideologies, as much as it is a display of absolute contempt for the democratic system in which its promoters live. At every demonstration by rightwing extremists, at every concert of proto-fascist music, at any völkisch festival or other nationalist and identitarian manifestations in Germany, the air is desecrated by the many imperial and Reich war flags. Along with the confederate flag and the swastika, the imperial flag has been a symbol of white supremacy and white oppression for years, but can be paraded without discretion anywhere in Europe and America. Why this flag isn’t officially banned in current-day Germany for its ideological affiliations remains a mystery and begs the question of whether Germany is any more enlightened today than the Weimar republic, which saw in the imperial flag an eminent threat to democracy.

When Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor who masterminded German unification in 1871, orchestrated the Congo Conference of 1884–85 – to which he invited 14 of the world’s so-called great nations to Berlin to discuss the partitioning, conquest, colonization and plundering of Africa – he did so under the auspices of the imperial flag. After the conference, Germany claimed for itself my homeland, German Kamerun (current-day Cameroon and part of Nigeria), Togoland (current day Togo and part of Ghana), German South-West Africa (current day Namibia) as well as German East Africa (current day Rwanda, Burundi and part of Tanzania). When the ships of the German merchants and, later, soldiers arrived on the shores of these colonized territories, the first thing they did to mark their newly ‘acquired’ lands was to plant the imperial flag. Yes, that same flag so proudly brandished during the demonstration against the German government’s COVID-19 policies.

A political overview map of the African continent from March 1885 after the Congo Conference. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

How do you explain to a nine year old that his great-grandfathers, again under the rule of the imperial flag, were forced into indentured labour, working on plantations to produce goods for the European market, or building the railroad that facilitated the shipping of raw materials and other items from Cameroon to Germany? The wealth that was extorted from these colonies was crucial in building the current German economic and social system from which those marching on the streets with their imperial flags are still profiting today. A century later, the descendants of some of those indentured labourers continue to suffer from the violence and wrath of the colonial enterprise.

The second Saturday after the big Querdenker (‘lateral thinking’) demonstrations in Berlin and many other German cities, thousands of anti-vaxxers, neo-imperialists, proto-fascists, hippies and Christian fundamentalists were still flocking to the streets in protest. That same week, the Moria detention/refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was set ablaze. Originally intended to house 3,000 migrants, by summer 2020 there were an estimated 20,000 occupants from 70 countries subsisting in conditions so inhumane that most people wouldn’t allow their dogs to live there. Now, Moria has been erased, yet its destruction appears to have provoked barely a flicker of indignation within the political clans around Europe.

As people who fled wars and famine with their children to seek refuge in Europe now find themselves sleeping rough on the streets and being tear-gassed by Greek police, European governments play political games and make hypocritical gestures by taking in just a few hundred child refugees. I ask myself why this cause hasn’t inspired 40,000 people to take to the streets to fight for the rights of fellow human beings whose humanity has been completely stripped away, who have lost the little they had in an arson attack, and who are unable even to receive NGO donations of food, water and medication because the residents of Lesbos have blocked off the roads.

Moria migrant camp on 9 September 2020 in Lesbos, Greece. Courtesy and photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

The second Saturday after the big Querdenker demonstrations in Berlin, I took my nine-year-old son to his first Holy Communion class at St. Clara’s Church in Neukölln, where he was baptised soon after he was born. As we sat there, masked up, listening to the priest’s sermon about finding a home in Jesus, I couldn’t help but think of the millions of displaced people around the world who were promised to find a home in Christ, while their homes were taken away. I also thought about how little time it took for laypeople, companies and business tycoons to pledge more than €750 million to rebuild Notre Dame in Paris when it was destroyed by fire in 2019. It is difficult not to be struck by the yawning disparity between the calls to EU member states from French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Donald Tusk to support the rebuilding of the cathedral – not to mention offers of help from US President Donald Trump and even some African presidents – in contrast to the deafening silence in relation to the Moria fire, which has thrust tens of thousands of humans, who were already living in purgatory, into hell.

But this is precisely where these two seemingly divergent threads intertwine, because the violent forces that led to the attempted storming of the Reichstag during the Querdenker demonstrations in August are the exact same forces that enabled Moria to exist in the first place. And, while some may still think of Moria as happening elsewhere, in reality it is already here.

People sit by the sea as refugees from the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros wait to board buses. Courtesy and photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

Memory may be a curse as much as it is a blessing, but our ability to recall past events, and our consciousness in relation to creating future memories, could save us from repeating the mistakes of our ancestors. On 30 January 1933 – the day power was handed over to the National Socialists in Germany – the artist Max Liebermann leaned out of the window of his home on Pariser Platz to watch a torchlight procession of Nazis at the Brandenburg Gate, and is said to have exclaimed in his Berlin dialect: Ick kann jar nich soville fressen, wie ick kotzen möchte. (I can’t eat as much as I want to throw up.) We do remember that. We do have a recollection of how things ended. As we nurture memories past and cultivate those yet to come, we must be on our toes and be prepared to run like the wind. As Matana Roberts sings on her 2019 album Coin Coin Chapter 4: ‘I am a child of the wind [...] Run baby run. Run like the wind. Memory is the most unusual thing.’

Main image: Demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers in front of the Reichstag building on 19 August 2020 in Berlin. Courtesy and photograph: Achille Abboud/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is artistic director of sonsbeek 2020, Arnhem, the Netherlands, founding director of SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, Germany and professor of Spatial Strategies at Weißensee Academy of Art, Berlin. In October 2020, he was awarded the Order of Merit of Berlin.