Food for thought

Change of perspective

Professor Aleida Assmann responds to the question of how the view of ­colonial history is changing Western remembrance culture.

Issue 1 | 2022

It was a double day of remembrance in Mexico on 4 May 2021. On that date Mexico’s President López Obrador officially apologised to the Maya peoples for the crimes that had been committed against them by the Spaniards since the conquest of the country. In the 500th year after the Spanish invasion he remembered the suffering that had been inflicted on the indigenous population not only during the three centuries of Spain’s colonial rule, but also during the two centuries since Mexico’s independence. Colonial and post-colonial humiliation and vio­lence added up to a 500-year history of oppression. The president emphasised here that this his­tory is still present in the form of racism and discrimination.

There are good reasons to remember these 500 years – not only in Mexico. Totally new global spaces of power and action arose on the basis of discoveries and conquests emanating from Europe in around 1520. European citizens, towns and nations acquired immeasurable wealth and global dom­inance as a result of the growth of the triangular trade in raw materials and slaves between Europe, the Americas and Africa.

Although this period of history is a long time ago, we can still tangibly hold it in our hands in the shape of remains and relics, and it is also embedded in the German urban landscape. In the centre of Berlin, for example, the Berlin Palace has been reconstructed with the Humboldt Forum forming an integral part of it, an institution actually intended to become a symbol of cosmopolitanism and convey the message “the world at home among friends”. Its dome, however, is decorated with a golden inscription on a blue background that is difficult to reconcile with that idea: “Neither is there salvation in any other, there is none other name given among men, but the name of Jesus, in honour of the Father, that in the name of Jesus they shall all bow down on bended knee that are in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth.” This grandiose invocation, totally incomprehensible in this form, stems from King Frederick William IV. Today it is not only embarrassing, but also reprehensible, and stands as an open affront to non-Christians.

“We now have the opportunity to learn something new about our history by looking at it through the eyes of those who were not born here, but whose ancestors suffered as a result of it.”

That is why Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had to say something about the building’s motto in his inaugural speech for the Ethno­logical Collection in September 2021. He referred to the profound demographical transformation associated with globalisation and migration: “Today ­people from all parts of the world live in Germany and in many cases have become German. They are part of what ‘German’ means today. They are not people with migrant backgrounds – we are a country with a migrant background!” Against this background he spoke of a historic turning point and a great responsibility. The Humboldt Forum is “not a place of self-assertion, but of self-questioning. (…) It is not a capstone, but only the beginning of a global transformation, because the cultures of the world have arrived, and that in a twofold sense: here inside the Humboldt Forum and there outside, before the monumental facades.”

We Germans now find ourselves at a new threshold of our historical awareness and our remembrance culture. That means: we now have the opportunity to learn something new about our history by looking at it through the eyes of those who were not born here, but whose ancestors suffered as a result of it.

And speaking of a change of perspective: in summer 2021 a seven-member crew set sail from Mexico. Five hundred years after Christopher ­Columbus, their ship La Montaña set course for ­Europe. In 50 days and nights this group of indigenous activists from the Zapatista autonomy movement crossed the Atlantic. Their message was “Wake up” and was directed against exploitation, oppression and war. They are fighting for a different perspective on this 500-year history and remind Europeans that Mexico was never discovered and not conquered. They called their invasion in reverse a Journey for Life. Their motto would also be fitting for the DAAD. They are on a quest with Europeans to find “what makes people equals”. —

PROFESSOR ALEIDA ASSMANN is an English studies specialist, Egyptologist and cultural scholar. In her academic work she deals intensely with the theme of cultural memory, with remembering and forgetting. Aleida Assmann has also presented this research worldwide as a visiting professor, including, among others, during a DAAD-funded temporary lectureship in Japan in 1998.