The role of German actors in European colonialisms, especially before the foundation of the German nation state in 1871 and Germany’s entry into imperialism proper with the so-called protectorates of 1884/85, is a contested one. Different academic camps have interpreted the peculiar German case very differently. Opposing positions were flagged in the late 1990s and still hold. Notably, the literary scholar Susanne Zantop (1997) compellingly argued that longer standing German ‘colonial fantasies’ were not only instrumental in paving the way for later German imperialism but analogous to Hannah Arendt’s earlier argument that they were also constitutive for Germany’s fascist futures in the twentieth century. Although the continuity argument about the links between the Holocaust and antecedent genocidal practices during the Herero uprising in South West Africa (from Waterberg to Auschwitz, so to speak), and the implications of making the link have been debated, subsequent historians, including George Steinmetz (2007), have shown how colonial fantasies were indeed operative, although they met with other determining factors, such as local conditions and the habitus of German colonial actors, when they were put into practice in the German colonies. By contrast, critics like Russell Berman (1998), partly drawing on Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt, but also deliberately distancing himself from universalising arguments about the European colonial project, proposed that early German investment in other states’ colonialism could be, and very often was, a disinterested affair driven by a passion for science and the extension of knowledge rather than conquest. Continue reading
The explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (*1813 in Trebatsch – †1848? in Central Australia) is a colonial figure shared by Germany and Australia alike. After a successful expedition together with a party of Indigenous and non-Indigenous men, travelling north – east from Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to Port Essington in 1844 and 1845 – Leichhardt was hailed as hero in both his native Prussia and in the Australian colonies. His and his party’s subsequent disappearance in the Australian interior on a further expedition in 1848 bound for the west coast remains a mystery, and together with his controversial character and the mixed nature of his legacies, continues to fascinate, engage or trouble Australians, Germans and others.
Today Leichhardt is remembered as a scientific hero, a cultural enquirer, and as an agent of colonial expansion. He has been portrayed through fiction and visual art, sung about, and cudgelled by opinion. He has been claimed or vilified by the Australian colonies, the British Empire and Prussia, by National Socialism and the East German state, as well as by contemporary Germany and Australia. Still missing, he is found in so many places.
In the light of important contemporary reassessments of Germany’s colonial past, how can cultural studies adequately engage with such a legacy? Given how little we can ever know about Leichhardt’s fate, what is the potential, in this context, of a fragmented yet composite picture of the explorer? A little over 200 years after his birth and exactly 170 years after departing on the journey from which he never returned, researchers, cultural producers and family members within and beyond the Academy were asked to experiment with the memory of this ambiguous colonial actor. They were invited to share a Leichhardt yarn and to contribute to the ongoing renegotiations of meaning attached to him as a dynamic figure enmeshed in the forces of memory.
In ‘Failure: The Curse of Leichhardt’, Anna Haebich introduces the reader to the Australian politician Bill Grayden, who set out on an expedition to find Leichhardt and returned as a modern-day prophet with a new cause: to “help” the Ngaanyatjarra desert people.
In ‘Dreaming Leichhardt: Wim Wenders at the End of the World’, Gail Jones analyses how Wim Wenders is cinema-seancing Leichhardt in his movie “Until the End of the World” (1991).
Lindsay Barret describes a traumatic experience he had, living in the inner-Sydney suburb of Leichhardt. He explains how the suburb was named after Leichhardt and how he and Leichhardt actually share a few things in common, especially the urge to record, observe and make traces.
Gerrit Haas’s, ‘How to Write About Leichhardt? _Towards a Ficto/critical Manifesto‘, is a declaration on how to write about Leichhardt in a ficto/critical way and why Leichhardt is a subject for ficto-critical writing. His essay ‘How to Write Like … Hard? – Manifestly Untoward: The Ficto/critical –’, is the performance of ficto-critical writing on Leichhardt.
In ‘Schoolbook Leichhardts: Discovering Ludwig Leichhardt in Historical Narratives for Children‘, Stefanie Land-Hilbert reflects on her discoveries on Leichhardt in Australian and German textbooks.
Anja Schwarz reflects on a puzzling comment by Irrwanyere elder Bingey Lowe in ‘Too many Ludwig Leichhardts‘.
These and many other Leichhardt stories can be accessed here.
Recent years have seen a growing interest among museum practitioners, as well as the greater German public, in the history of objects acquired in colonial contexts. This turn to colonial objects forms part of a broader shift in the status accorded to colonialism in Germany’s memory culture. Long neglected or wilfully ignored, Germany has for a long time been reluctant to accept the responsibilities arising from the nation’s colonial past.
Objects and specimens collected in the colonial era have a particular role to play in this process, as demonstrated, for instance, by the heated discussions around the current reassessment and relocation of some of Berlin’s ethnological and ethnographic collections, which are to be housed, as of 2019, in the Humboldt Forum in Mitte. In this context, questions are being asked about the legal context of the objects’ acquisition and their adequate management by museum staff and researchers. How are such items to be cared for and stored? How, if at all, should they be made accessible to the public, and possibly displayed? Should they be returned? And there is a slowly growing understanding of the kind of complicated ongoing connections and obligations that these objects might establish between European collecting institutions and Indigenous communities today.
It might seem slightly eccentric to raise the issue of natural history collections within the context of these debates about the legacy of German colonialism and the attendant politics of collection, display and repatriation. Nevertheless, I want to situate natural history objects within such a framework for two reasons that foreground the entanglements of humans and non-human objects in our social histories. Continue reading