European colonial powers still loth to admit historical evils

Netherlands, Germany and Belgium are still coming to terms with their overseas legacies

The Netherlands

Visiting Indonesia this week, King Willem-Alexander apologised for his country’s “excessive violence” in its former colony, saying the past could not be erased but must be acknowledged.

But while the Dutch view of their colonial history is shifting, the country has yet to fully acknowledge colonial harm, or the extent to which prevailing attitudes to it affect people today, sociologists and historians have said.

“The general feeling is still: we did it, it was a long time ago, everybody else was doing it, it’s not that serious, there’s nothing to apologise for,” said Sander Philipse, a historian and writer.

The Netherlands became a world power in the 17th century, thanks to enormous wealth generated by its East and West India Companies which propelled it to the forefront of scientific discovery and artistic endeavour. But the period also witnessed colonial violence on a grand scale, and extensive involvement in the slave trade.

Over the past decade postcolonial historians and former colonial subjects living in the Netherlands have steadily raised awareness of the issue, with moves to rename streets and remove statues of past heroes sparking heated debates.

Last year, the Amsterdam Museum banned the term Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age) from its exhibits as a general description of the era in which the Netherlands dominated the world stage, saying it did not do justice to those who were exploited.

But Piet Emmer, a retired history professor, has argued that present-day criticism of Dutch colonialism is absurd. “You’re not allowed to say, it but colonialism introduced modern civilisation,” he has said.

Karwan Fatah-Black, a social historian at the University of Leiden, said the older generation of historians bent on protecting what they saw as the Netherlands’ colonial legacy was now mostly gone. “That obviously implies a big change of attitude,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean the rest of society is moving at the same pace.”

Jon Henley



Debate about Germany’s colonial history has long been overshadowed by the crimes of the National Socialist era. Only in recent years has there been an effort, largely driven by grass-roots initiatives, to bring this chapter of the past to the fore.

“As a consequence of the engagement with the Third Reich, Germans are generally not very proud of their history in the late 19th and 20th century,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, a historian of colonialism at Hamburg University.

The fact that Germans questioned by YouGov were most likely to respond “don’t know” when quizzed about whether they were proud or ashamed of empire also suggested a knowledge gap about Germany’s role in Europe’s colonial history.

“There’s still a lack of debate about the structurally racist injustices carried out in the name of colonialism, and the violent histories of each individual colony,” said Zimmerer.

Germany only belatedly joined other European nations in the scramble for colonial expansion. But by the start of the first world war, it had the third-largest empire after Britain and France. In Namibia, known as German South West Africa, German troops carried out what has become known as the first genocide of the 20th century.

In July 2015 the German foreign minister, now president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued diplomatic guidelines that the 1904-1908 massacre of Herero and Namaqua peoples should be referred to as “a war crime and a genocide”.

The debate had been largely led by city authorities such as Berlin or Hamburg rather than the federal government, said Zimmerer. It also remained limited to the cultural sector.

Berlin is already in the process of renaming some of the streets in its “African quarter”, in the Wedding district. In April 2018, authorities announced Petersallee boulevard, named after an imperial high commissioner for east Africa with a blood-thirsty reputation, will be divided into Anna-Mungunda-Allee and Maji-Maji-Allee, named after a Namibian independence campaigner and the anti-imperialist rebellion that began in east Africa in 1905.

Philip Olterman in Berlin

Pride graphic


Today street names commemorating colonial heroes are being changed and statues are being fitted with explanatory panels. But it was arguably only in 1999 on publication of the bestseller King Leopold’s Ghost that critical debate ensued in Belgium over the country’s colonial legacy.

American author Adam Hochschild depicted Leopold II as a voracious king who plundered the Congo Free State, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, for rubber and ivory while his underlings mutilated, raped and murdered local inhabitants.

Up to 10 million were estimated by Hochschild to have been killed in what he suggested was a hidden holocaust.

“But until 20 years ago most Belgians still thought they did nothing but good,” said Guido Gryseels, director at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. “In the 1960s, Congo had a GNP that was twice that of Italy and as large as that of Canada. So Belgians thought that if only they hadn’t kicked us out in the 1960s they would not be in the state it is today – one of the word’s poorest countries.”

In 2005, Gryseels’s museum – sited where Leopold in 1897 had imported 267 Congolese to perform in a kind of human zoo – staged its first exhibition with a critical stance on the colonial period. “For a period of eight months almost every newspaper and radio station had a programme, almost every day, following the exhibition,” Gryseels said.

There are some 250,000 Congolese in Belgium, many of whom have struggled for work, faced racism, and felt understandably angry about the blindness of Belgians to their legacy. The Royal Museum for Central Africa reopened last year with a permanent exhibition that sought to assuage the diaspora that eyes were opening.

“The mood is certainly changing”, said Gryseels. “People still use the expression that you shouldn’t forget the positive aspects of colonialism to which we say that is like saying to a woman who has just been raped, ‘Oh but you do have a nice baby’. Most people in Belgium are not very proud.”

Daniel Boffey in Brussels


Jon Henley, Philip Oltermann and Daniel Boffey

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Namibia rejects German compensation offer over colonial violence
Closely watched talks appear to be stalling as reported €10m offer is dismissed

Jason Burke in Johannesburg and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

12, Aug, 2020 @3:03 PM

Article image
Campaigners celebrate changing of colonial street names in Berlin
Street and square in north-east of city renamed in tribute to figureheads who resisted forced rule in Africa

Kate Connolly Berlin

02, Dec, 2022 @5:13 PM

Article image
UK more nostalgic for empire than other ex-colonial powers
A YouGov poll reveals 30% of Britons believe colonies were better off as part of the British Empire

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

11, Mar, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Rijksmuseum laments Dutch failure to return stolen colonial art
Amsterdam gallery in talks with Sri Lanka and Indonesia about returning artefacts

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

13, Mar, 2019 @1:22 PM

Article image
Germany moves to atone for 'forgotten genocide' in Namibia
Berlin discusses possible reparation payments over massacre of tens of thousands of people in early years of 20th century

Jason Burke Africa correspondent, and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

25, Dec, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Most are unaware’: film highlights Germany’s genocidal past in Namibia
Director hopes to educate Germans about ‘brutal’ colonial history of mass killings in early 20th century

Kate Connolly in Berlin

22, Mar, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
'Do not let this fire burn': WHO warns Europe over Covid-19
Europe now centre of pandemic, says WHO, as Spain prepares for state of emergency

Jon Henley in Paris and Sam Jones in Madrid

13, Mar, 2020 @9:58 PM

Article image
Dutch PM apologises for state’s role in abuses in 1940s Indonesian war
Study finds ‘widespread’ ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions during 1945-9 war of independence

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

17, Feb, 2022 @1:27 PM

Article image
George Floyd killing triggers wave of activism around the world
Protests have spread to UK, France, Israel, Australia, south-east Asia and parts of Africa

Michael Safi

09, Jun, 2020 @12:36 PM

Article image
Macron seeks African reset with new view of France’s troubled history on continent
Honest examination of French colonial record in Africa and responsibilty in Rwanda key to new strategy, though critics say little has changed

Jason Burke in Pretoria

29, May, 2021 @5:13 PM