Joshua Kwesi Aikins is a research associate in the subject development policy and postcolonial studies of the University in Kassel. He studied political sciences at the FU Berlin and the University of Ghana.

Joshua Kwesi Aikins is a research associate in the subject development policy and postcolonial studies of the University in Kassel. He studied political sciences at the FU Berlin and the University of Ghana.

His research focuses are the synergy of Western and indigenous political systems in Ghana, developmental politics from a decolonial perspective, cultural and political representation of the African Diaspora, coloniality and developmental politics in Germany, as well as Critical Whiteness research.

He combines in German as well as Ghanaian context academic and civil societal addressing of questions such as empowerment and participation, in Ghana as an Associate Researcher of the Ghana Constitution Review Commission (2010-2011), as well as scientific lead of the Ghana Vote Compass, the first Ghanaian Voter Advice Application for the elections in December 2012. In Germany, he coordinated the preparation of a civil societal shadow report on the topic of racism in Germany for the UN antiracism commission from 2013 to 2015. For the project „diversity decides“ by the association Citizens for Europe he wrote the expertise “Courses of action for diversification of the Berlin cultural sector” together with Daniel Gyamerah. In addition, he works as a trainer and speaker in the area of political education with the focus on the contested de/coloniality of public spaces, human rights-based anti-racist work and empowerment.

"One can see the continuity of a long and problematic history of entanglements with German colonialism, with German colonial violence and then unfortunately with this [Humboldt Forum] project."

- Joshua Kwesi Aikins

"One can see the continuity of a long and problematic history of entanglements with German colonialism, with German colonial violence and then unfortunately with this [Humboldt Forum] project."

- Joshua Kwesi Aikins

What word comes to your mind when you think of the Humboldtforum/Berliner Schloss? Please explain.

Presumptuous. I think that this project is presumptuous on many different levels. To claim to act in such a restorative manner. Yes, so to speak to reconstruct a feudal symbol. I also find it a little revanchist, even if one “only” includes GDR History and the Palast der Republik. Unfortunately, this is why it is presumptuous – the whole issue highlights a deeper historical and ever more problematic dimension, when one recognizes that the Humboldt Forum is too a colonial project. On the one hand it is about the manner in which those objects are being handled, but more precisely it is the way in which proper research on provenance, restitution, etc. has been avoided, and therefore avoiding dealing responsibly with the history of these collections.
Furthermore, it is also presumptuous that the entire collection is going to move back into a Hohenzollern residency.

That no small part of the ethnographic collections of Berlin was brought here during the German colonial era, that they are going to move back into a rebuilt castle that belonged to the Hohenzollern, the German nobility which was entangled in and responsible for German colonial aggressions. From the time of the so-called “Große Kürfürste”[Great Elector] who ordered the construction of the slave fort of Brandenburg, to the German colonial era, during which Reichskanzler von Bülow [Chancellor of the German Empire], although not a member of the Hohenzollern family, ordered the establishment of concentration camps in German South-East-Africa, as well as the castle that hosted a “curiosity cabinet” in which supposedly “other” cultures were displayed with a degrading Eurocentric colonial view, one can see the continuity of a long and problematic history of entanglements with German colonialism, with German colonial violence and then unfortunately with this project. An uninterrupted colonial view, that’s what’s expressed through this project, because it is not critically and consciously reflected or disrupted in any way.

And for all these reasons I consider it to be very presumptuous. That is also the case if you look at the scale of the project. It is one of the biggest ,most expensive cultural projects in all of Europe, with figures that are certainly in the hundreds of millions. At the same time, the persons in charge claim to be regretful about the lack of financial resources to do research on the provenance of the objects. This clearly shows that priorities are unfortunately set in the wrong way. And at this point one just has to say it is presumptuous. Plus, there’s the contrast between the supposedly humanistic universal gesture of “we invite the world to Berlin” on the one side, and how this is actually being implemented on the other side. For all these reasons, it is quite presumptuous.

Do you think that Germany should pay reparations to the Herero and Nama communities that were affected by and dispossessed during the genocide from 1904-08? Please elaborate.

I think that Germany should definitely pay reparations to the Herero and Nama who were affected by the genocide, or to their descendants. I think that Germany has to face that responsibility. And that starts with the question of how to speak about these things. Currently efforts are made to discuss these questions between the German and the Namibian government. And the criticism raised by Herero and Nama associations is that they are not involved in the discussions. Though Nama participate on the Namibian side, they are representatives ordered by the government and not representatives of the victims’ associations that have been working on precisely this topic, that would gladly send delegates to these talks. And that shows the first failure to handle this history responsibly. And I think one has to realize that there are very clear material consequences until today. That a totally disproportional part of the fertile soils is still in the hands of white people of German origins, while Herero and Nama are still politically as well as economically marginalized. That means that in economic everyday life in the country, the consequences of the genocide are clearly visible everywhere. And in my opinion, an obvious responsibility results from this. Not least because the expropriation of the Herero and Nama was not just some kind of informal consequence of the genocide, but because it was so to speak decreed by law from Germany. And in this context Germany, the federal government of Germany, has to face this responsibility. And from my point of view, an essential part of it would be to stop linking these debates to references to so-called development cooperation. I find that extremely questionable and inappropriate. Because if we really are to talk about reparations, then I feel it is important to say that reparations have many dimensions.

To me the erection of a memorial for the victims of German colonialism for example – here in Berlin, for example – would also be a part of such reparations. It is not just about the money, it is also about symbolic reparations. Reparations through a different education, through a different political education and so on and so forth. But naturally there is also the material component. And my problem is that in Germany there is a tendency to link that to so-called development cooperation. That is a problem because – as it is known – development cooperation is tied to conditions. And it is, by the way, also paid to the Namibian government and not directly to the victims’ associations. But apart from that, the problem are the conditions. Development cooperation functions like this: one says “yes, you get this or that money, but then you have to do exactly this or that with it, and this or that expert of ours needs to be hired to help you with it” and so on and so forth.

I think it is obvious to everyone that if one acknowledges a violation, a misconduct or in this case even a genocide, that the person or, in this case, the country who acknowledges it and wants to pay reparations cannot determine what it should be used for. And that is precisely the reason why I think it is misleading to link these two things. And I would definitely expect the federal government to assume its responsibility in its reflections on the matters, in a way where it would keep these things apart and then enter a direct dialog with the victims’ associations.

Do you think that a memorial and informational centrum concerning the topic slavery, colonialism and racism should be built in Berlin? Please elaborate.

I think it would be good and important that such an information center, including a memorial, would be erected and inaugurated, because I think that Berlin was a control center not only of German but also of European and ultimately Western colonialism. Long before the German Empire formally entered colonialism, during the time of the enslavement trade specific trajectories originated from here. And events such as the Africa Conference, the Berlin Conference, where the African continent was divided among colonial powers in the absence of any representatives from Africa. Exactly for this reason it is important that here at this place, from which so much colonial violence emanated, that some responsibility is taken and that this history and in particular also its continuities to the present day are thus remembered.

I think that there is a blank in Germany, in the German debate about remembrance politics. That there is too little awareness about this remembrance, or the perspectives of those who were colonized also being a part of German history, a part of European history. It is not something that only takes place elsewhere, there are in fact many people here who have diasporic relations, who have familial relations to this history. There are the perspectives other than those who exerted violence, who benefited from colonialism; there are also the perspectives of those who were displaced, deprived of their rights, degraded and murdered. And I think it is important to include that. I think that there is also another historical connection in Berlin, a layer of history that is not being connected to colonial history nearly enough, and that is the history of the so-called “liberation”.

Because what is utterly neglected, when remembering the liberation from the NS-Regime, is the fact that the western Allies were colonial powers and assured their victory over the axis through colonial exploitation. And this talk about the liberation of Germany and the liberation that paved way for democracy is cynical, as long as one doesn’t include that the USA was an apartheid state and that France and England were colonial powers which committed massive human rights violations, which committed massive exploitation with millions of subsequent deaths in order to mobilize resources to win that war. And therefore, especially here in Berlin, also the capital of the NS regime, I think there is again a particular importance for such a memorial that would connect these different time periods.

What’s your take on the many human remains from the Global South that are kept in German museums until today?

I think that these human remains bear witness to the brutality and the racist arrogance which prevailed. Because one of the important motivations for collecting these mortal remains was to use them for racist research, which was intended to “objectively” prove the supremacy of the white race. I think that it is also important to listen to what the people from where these remains originate say. The Herero and Nama for example, from whom many skulls – also in the context of the first officially designated German concentration camps – were stolen and brought here, they say, “these are our ancestors and what happens to them here in Berlin is not dignified, not appropriate. They must be returned and buried with dignity.” But they also say that these remains are testament to the genocide that was committed. And they expect the return of the skulls, but they also expect them to be forensically examined here, to find out more about the last months preceding death and maybe also about the circumstances of death. And I think that this indicates a responsibility that has to be faced by the different institutions here in Germany and Berlin who, well, “own” might be the wrong term…but yes, in whose cellars they are stored, including the Preußischer Kulturbesitz Foundation, which is also responsible for the Humboldt Forum.

And I think a responsible handling of these skulls, namely a forensic analysis and a dignified return, would show that those cosmopolitan marketing slogans that link themselves to this project are actually credible. But the skulls are not only in the possession of the Preußischer Kulturbesitz Foundation. One can almost say that every university hospital that is old enough, that existed since the colonial era, has such skulls stored in its basement. And that means that the responsibility goes far beyond Berlin and that really many institutions should face it.

According to you, how important is the equal and conceptional contribution of descendants of colonized people to handle the colonial past (i.e. negotiations regarding reparations, museums, exhibitions, representation in schoolbooks, street renaming etc.)?

I think that it really doesn’t make much sense to look at this history from only one perspective. Or for that matter the shared history of violence for colonialism in general. I think that the fact that in the last decades mostly only a European, Eurocentric perspective has been told makes clear what a dead end that is. Because with only this one perspective it’s just not possible to understand history and the many aftereffects of colonialism and racism which continue to the present today. Racism has not only continued, but has also continued to create further impacts. It’s not possible to understand how racism is still such an dominant system in Western society and exerts power on a global scale without including colonial history in the picture. And in turn, it’s also not possible to understand this if one only takes one perspective into account. So I think that including multiple perspectives is quite central to being able to understand the interconnections between the different parts of colonialism’s shared history of violence.

And I think that it’s the responsibility of anyone who at this moment has the most resources – not least of all due to this history – to engage in truly open-ended, respectful partnership – and that’s a word which is now of course also quite loaded. It’s the responsibility of such people to attempt a true exchange, to reach new realizations. And in my view, that entails above all else that one takes seriously the experiences of those who were colonized. And that means that one needs to go a little bit out of their way in order to research what’s being assumed here, and how the colonial project has been thought of, but also what came about from it. Such as the kinds of manifold impacts that colonial violence has had, including not only driving people off of their lands and murdering them, but rather the damage to or even partial destruction of entire societies, ways of life, economic models, ways of thinking about the world, bodies of knowledge, and epistemologies. I think that it’s important to also look on the other side of this shared history to actually get a better insight on the scope of this violence had and what effects it’s had up to the present.

I think that for Europe at this moment this is especially important, because from my view Europe – not just since Brexit and the EU crisis – finds itself in a crisis of thought.
There are challenges today, global challenges, which arise out of the problematic aspects of the European, Western system. So, for example, I think about growing inequality, about intergenerational injustice, with particular reference to the climate catastrophe. Those are all problems which have been brought about by the Western way of life, as well as Western economics and modes of political organization. So one can’t just look to the West for answers to these problems. [And the West doesn’t find solutions to these problems.]
And I think that especially here it’d be important to look to other bodies of knowledge, in order to gain inspiration for how these global problems can now be solved.
But the tragedy is, I think, that then as now there’s this sort of colonial holdover, that many people in Europe, including decision makers, hang onto the idea that it’s the supposedly “most developed” nations who should chart and depict the future for the rest of the world, in particular for the Global South. With that kind of thinking, one really lacks the experiences of…

[interrupted video]

So when one hangs onto this problematic idea that Europe is supposedly more developed than the Global South, which is pure colonial fantasy, then out of that arises the tragedy, if you will, of thinking in terms of linear, unidirectional progress narratives. If one takes the attitude that “we in Europe are at the front,” then one can hardly conceive of how to learn from others, all of whom are supposedly behind them and who must always be the ones to learn. In that way, one is a prisoner of this colonial arrogance, in the sense that it makes it much more difficult to solve the many pressing social, political, economic, and ecological problems or at least makes it more difficult to have any really new ideas for solving them. And here, I think, it’ll be clear how tragic this still-unreflected colonial arrogance and lack of self-consciousness will be for Europe. And because of that, I think that remembrance politics and remembrance practice which allow room for many perspectives and many voices can help deal with this problem in a critical way.

Any additional thoughts?

No, at the moment nothing else comes to mind. Perhaps something else, actually: One can see now in Berlin, where there are struggles over remembrance in the public sphere, where not far from here a street was renamed from Gröbenufer Street to May-Ayim-Ufer Street, where people with other perspectives on remembrance mix and say “we want to talk about this together,” one can see here a little bit of the potential that comes out of remembrance that embraces multiple perspectives. When one thinks now about this in reference to the many, many other remembrance communities which also operate in Berlin, and which also practice their own forms of remembrance without others putting a spin on it, then I think it will quickly become clear what sort of potential there is here, which for this society is very important. More precisely, listening to, taking a look at, and generally taking this wealth of perspectives seriously is very important to changing how colonialism is remembered in Berlin and in Germany.