Ancient sculptures prompt Germany to reckon with colonial past

In an attempt to atone for colonial-era crimes, Germany will return the highly prized Benin bronzes to Africa.

Ancient sculptures prompt Germany to reckon with colonial past
The Benin bronzes on display in Hamburg in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

With their wide eyes, intricate head coverings and elaborate armour, the Benin bronzes are among the most prized possessions of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.

But the 16th-18th century metal plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin may never see the light of day in a German museum again.

After years of negotiations, Germany announced in April that it will begin returning the bronzes, looted during the colonial era, to what is now Nigeria from next year.

The move is one of a series of recent steps by Germany towards atoning for crimes committed in the colonial era, including the official recognition in May that it committed genocide in Namibia.

READ ALSO: Germany officially recognises it committed genocide in Namibia during colonial rule

“I believe that all parts of society are becoming more aware now that Germany has a colonial history, too,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which runs the Berlin museum.

“Awareness (of this period) was somewhat obscured by the great catastrophes of the 20th century – the world wars, the Holocaust. But we are slowly becoming more conscious of this historical period and its implications.”

One reason for this, according to Parzinger, is the completion of the Humboldt Forum, a controversial new museum complex housed in a reconstructed Prussian palace in the heart of Berlin.

The complex, which opened in December, has attracted fierce criticism for planning to show colonial artifacts such as the Benin bronzes in what used to be the main residence of the Hohenzollerns, instigators of German colonialism.

Juergen Zimmerer, a professor of history specialising in the colonial era at the University of Hamburg, also believes the Black Lives Matter movement has “played a role” in mobilising support for a new approach to colonial history in Germany.

440 bronzes

The Benin bronzes, among the most highly regarded works of African art, are now scattered around European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin has 530 historical objects from the ancient kingdom, including 440 bronzes — considered the most important collection outside London’s British Museum.

Conversations are ongoing about the details of returning the artworks and whether Berlin may still keep some.
“We would like to continue showing art from Benin in the Humboldt Forum,” Parzinger said. “The important thing is that we have a dialogue about this and a common idea with the people in charge in Nigeria.”

Some of the bronzes were put on display in the Leipzig Museum of Ethnology in 2002. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb | Wolfgang Kluge

Theophilus Umogbai, a curator with the National Museum in Benin City, said the plans to return the bronzes were a “welcome development” for a country that has “always clamoured for the repatriation of these stolen artifacts”.

“We are also calling on other museums in Europe and other nations to return the artifacts to Benin, the original owners of the works,” he added.   

READ ALSO: Germany confronts colonial past through return of ancient cross to Namibia

In particular, Germany’s move raises the pressure on the British Museum, which has some 700 Benin bronzes.

Elsewhere in Europe, similar action is underway to return looted artifacts.

The Dutch government in February voted to begin repatriating artifacts to former colonies such as Indonesia, with culture minister Ingrid van
Engelshoven declaring there was “no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft”.

In France, following a landmark speech by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, a plan was approved last year to return 27 pieces of African art to Benin and Senegal.

“Crime against humanity”

Though smaller than those of France and Britain, Germany’s colonial empire encompassed parts of several African countries, including present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia and Cameroon.

Long before the advent of Nazi concentration camps, the country was responsible for mass killings of indigenous Herero and Nama people in Namibia that many historians refer to as the first genocide of the 20th century.

READ ALSO: What you should know about Germany’s colonial-era massacre of Namibia’s indigenous tribes

Over the last years, Germany has returned skulls and other human remains to Namibia that it had sent to Berlin during the period for “scientific” experiments.

In May, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany will now officially refer to the killings in Namibia as “genocide” and promised a billion euros in financial support to descendants of the victims.

But many Namibians have rejected the deal, arguing that descendants of the Herero and Nama were not involved in the negotiations and the Namibian government was strong-armed into the accord.

Historian Zimmerer, too, finds it “regrettable” that Germany is not going further to truly face up to the atrocities of the colonial period.

“In Germany — and this applies to all European societies — there must be a clear acknowledgement that colonialism was a structurally racist system of injustice and a crime against humanity,” he said.

Femke Colborne

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Inside Germany’s secret Cold War cash bunker

For many years, the residents of the leafy town of Cochem in the German Rhineland went about their daily business with no idea they were living on a gold mine.

Inside Germany's secret Cold War cash bunker

During the Cold War, the German central bank stashed away almost 15 billion marks’ worth of an emergency currency in a 1,500-square-metre nuclear bunker beneath the town.

A closely guarded state secret, the currency was codenamed “BBK II” and intended for use if Germany was the target of an attack on its monetary system.

After the Cold War, the bunker passed into the hands of a regional cooperative bank and then a real estate fund. In 2016, it was bought by German couple Manfred and Petra Reuter, who turned it into a museum.

A staircase with a secret exit in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Today, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stoking fears of nuclear conflict, interest in the bunker is growing again.

“Many people we know have pointed out that we have a safe bunker and asked whether there would be room for them in case of an emergency,” said Petra Reuter.

On tours of the bunker, “questions are naturally asked about the current situation”, which feels like “a leap back in time 60 years”, she said. “The fears are the same.”

Inside, behind a heavy iron door, long corridors lead to decontamination chambers and offices equipped with typewriters and rotary phones.

Petra Reuter, owner of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum, walks through the working room in the former vault of the museum in Cochem, western Germany on February 8th, 2022. Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

The main room consists of 12 cages where, for almost 25 years, some 18,300 boxes containing millions of 10, 20, 50 and 100 mark banknotes were stored up to the ceiling.

Hundreds of trucks
On the front, the banknotes were almost identical to the real deutschmarks in circulation at the time, but on the back they were very different.

Starting in 1964, the notes were delivered to the bunker by hundreds of trucks over a period of about 10 years, with no one suspecting a thing — not even the East German Stasi secret police.

The bunker was accessed via a secret passage from what was ostensibly a training and development centre for Bundesbank employees in a residential area of the town.

Cochem, located about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, was chosen because it was such a long way from the Iron Curtain.

“The citizens of the community were astonished to discover this treasure, which had been hidden for so long near their homes,” said Wolfgang Lambertz, the former mayor of the town, which has around 5,000 inhabitants.

This picture shows a working room with decoding devices in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Along with the 15 billion marks stored in the bunker, just under 11 billion marks’ worth of the alternative currency was also stored in the vaults of the central bank in Frankfurt.

Altogether, this added up to around 25 billion marks — roughly equivalent to the total amount of cash circulating in the German economy in 1963.

Facsimiles of former banknotes of the substitute currency are pictured in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany on February 8th, 2022. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Operation Bernhard
Perhaps an extreme measure to ward off a merely hypothetical attack, but the German authorities had been guided by lessons from history.

During World War II, the Nazis had launched “Operation Bernhard”, in which prisoners in concentration camps were forced to manufacture counterfeit pounds with the aim of flooding England with them.

“The most plausible explanation was probably the fear that counterfeit money would be smuggled through the Iron Curtain in order to damage the West German economy,” according to Bernd Kaltenhaueser, president of the Bundesbank’s regional office for Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland.

This shows a picture of the original and substitute 100 Mark notes in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany.  (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

But creating a backup currency today “would no longer make sense because there is less counterfeit money in circulation and there are fewer cash payments”, according to Kaltenhaueser.

In the 1980s, with the Cold War winding down and technology evolving, it was decided that the replacement currency no longer met Germany’s security standards.

By 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, all of the notes had been taken out of the bunker, shredded and burned.