This article examines how colonial reckoning is belatedly becoming part of the German memory landscape thirty years after reunification. It argues that colonial-era questions are acquiring the status of a new phase of coming-to-terms with the past in Germany alongside—and sometimes in tension with—the memory of the National Socialist and East German pasts. This raises new and difficult questions about what it means for the state and citizens to act responsibly in the face of historical wrongs and their lasting consequences. Given deep disagreements over what responsibility for the past means in practice, these questions also raise the stakes for the future of Germany's global reputation as a normative model for democratic confrontations with difficult pasts. It provides an overview of the circumstances after reunification in which colonial memory issues came to the fore, and analyzes a 2019 Bundestag debate on colonial heritage as an example of how the main contours of colonial memory are being configured within the context of contemporary politics.
Jonathan Bach is Professor of Global Studies at The New School in New York. He is the author most recently of What Remains: Everyday Encounters with the Socialist Past in Germany (New York, 2017), and co-editor of Re-Centering the City: Global Mutations of Socialist Modernity (London, 2020) and Learning from Shenzhen: China's Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City (Chicago, 2017).