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Germany confronts colonial past through return of ancient cross to Namibia

A German museum was set to announce Friday that it would restitute to Namibia a key 15th-century navigation landmark erected by Portuguese explorers, as part of Berlin's efforts to face up to its colonial past.

Germany confronts colonial past through return of ancient cross to Namibia
The cross on display at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Photo: DPA

A German museum was set to announce Friday that it would restitute to Namibia a key 15th-century navigation landmark erected by Portuguese explorers, as part of Berlin's efforts to face up to its colonial past.

Placed in 1486 on the western coast of what is today Namibia, the Stone Cross was once considered to be such an important navigation marker that it featured on old world maps.

In the 1890s, it was removed from its spot on Cape Cross and brought to Europe by the region's then German colonial masters.

SEE ALSO: Art reparation: Colonial ghosts haunt German and other European museums

Since 2006, it has been part of a permanent exhibition of the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

But in June 2017, Namibia demanded the restitution of the cross, which stands 3.5 metres tall and weighs 1.1 tonnes.

After holding a symposium in 2018 with African and European experts on the issue, the museum's supervisory board was due to formally announce Friday its decision to return the monument.

Germany has pledged to accelerate the return of artifacts and human remains from former African colonies.

On the eve of the planned announcement, Germany's minister of state for international cultural policies, Michelle Müntefering, said: “The return of cultural objects is an important building stone for our common future with Namibia.”

SEE ALSO: Germany confronts colonial past through 'largest return' of Aboriginal remains

'Historical injustice'

In a column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the president of the museum's foundation, Raphael Gross, noted that the Cross “is one of the very few objects that documents the occupation of the country by the Portuguese and with that the slow beginning of colonial rule in present-day Namibia”.

“For the people in Namibia and their cultural and political self-image, it is today of great significance because it stands for the experience of colonial rule from the perspective of those who were subject to it.”

For Gross, a restitution would be an “important gesture” for both Namibia and the museum, which would serve as a “recognition of historical injustice”.

“In this respect, it can act as an intervention that allows a new chapter to be opened up in the consideration of the common history of both Germany and Namibia.”

SEE ALSO: Berlin to change street names which honour brutal colonial past

Berlin ruled what was then called South-West Africa as a colony from 1884 to 1915.

Germany has on several occasions repatriated human remains to Namibia, where it slaughtered tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908.

The German government announced in 2016 that it planned to issue an official apology for the atrocities committed by German imperial troops.

But it has repeatedly refused to pay direct reparations, citing millions of euros in development aid given to the Namibian government.

Beyond the former South West Africa, the German empire also held the colonies of Togoland, now Togo, Kamerun (Cameroon) and Tanganyika (Tanzania), as well as some Pacific islands.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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