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  • Postcolonial Germany: Memories of Empire in a Decolonized Nation by Britta Schilling
  • Woodruff D. Smith
Postcolonial Germany: Memories of Empire in a Decolonized Nation. By Britta Schilling (New York, Oxford University Press, 2014) 258pp. $110.00

Tracing “memories of empire” after decolonization has become a popular research topic for at least three reasons—the appearance of a useful body of theory about collective memory, the fact that collective memory is implicit in the concept of “postcolonialism,” and the imminent unavailability of the last bearers of first-hand colonial memories. All of these factors are evident in this book, which examines colonial memory in Germany from World War I to about 1990. Although its perspective is broad, it is not fully comprehensive. Its focus on representative topics in specific periods is an appropriate strategy, however, given the heterogeneity of colonial memory. Moreover, the memories with which Schilling is concerned are almost exclusively those of white Europeans in Germany and in Germany’s former African colonies. The Pacific and China are largely absent, and, for the most part, the memories of Africans are presented as subjects of reports by Germans, not as objects of research in themselves.

Schilling describes Germany as having been “decolonized” at the end of World War I. The manner in which Germany’s decolonization occurred—its colonies confiscated by the victors on the formal grounds that Germany had been a bad colonial ruler—gives comparison with later cases only limited utility, but it was crucial for the construction of German colonial memories. One such “memory”—of Germans as effective colonialists with loyal African subjects who preferred them to their later rulers—was a deliberate attempt to counter the assertion that had justified the seizure of the colonies and to campaign for their return. Other colonial memories of the interwar years were also constructed for use in national politics. Schilling describes a few nonpolitical memories, including exotic colonial “dreams” embodied in “colonial balls” during the 1920s, which she associates with fads for jazz, Josephine Baker, and tropical consumer goods. She suggests, however, that even these fancies tended to be understood in the context of forced decolonization.

For the post-1945 period, Schilling focuses on how the split between West and East Germany structured alternative public versions of colonial memory. Whereas the East portrayed itself as heir to a supposedly consistent anticolonialism on the socialist left, the West often officially [End Page 583] referred back to the memory of “good” German colonialism, emphasizing the benefits conferred by Germans on their grateful subjects. Schilling cites government files concerning official gifts to newly independent states during the 1960s to reveal the complex role of colonial memory in formulating policy toward Africa. She also discusses the radical left’s use of memories of German colonialism to attack the contemporary Federal Republic during this same decade. In a chapter about the disappearance of public monuments to colonialists, Schilling paints a picture of public colonial memory fading during the 1980s, whereas in another chapter, she shows how private memories continued to be maintained in the families of Germans who once lived in the colonies. She does not attempt to explain in any depth the modest resurgence of public and academic interest in Germany’s colonial history that has been evident since about 2000.

Schilling does not display a particularly thorough knowledge of German colonial history; she makes a few factual errors, although none of significance. Her attempt to connect each of the chapters to a body of theory is sometimes successful and sometimes not. Overall, Schilling makes a useful contribution to the historical literature on collective and colonial memory.

Woodruff D. Smith
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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pp. 583-584
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