A move to remove the statesman's statue ignores the complexities of his legacy
“Off with his head” demands a retired pastor from Hamburg, pointing a trembling finger at the colossal statue of Otto von Bismarck that towers over his north German port city. The memorial to Germany’s first chancellor is the largest of over 600 such monuments that were erected all over the country. Besmeared with graffiti and structurally unsound, it was in dire need of restoration — if it was to be saved.
The 34m stone figure overlooks Hamburg’s harbour and has been a dominant feature of the cityscape since it was first built in 1906. The restoration is now underway costing €9 million. That Germany is restoring its 19th century monuments while other nations are toppling theirs has naturally led to a heated debate.
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It was perhaps inevitable that the culture wars that have been raging through the West would engulf Germany too — a nation that has been struggling to grapple with its historical guilt. In the heart of Berlin, you will not find a monument to a great battle that was won, nor a statue of a national hero. Instead, a 200,000 sq ft sea of concrete blocks reminds of the most horrific German crime of all: the Holocaust. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe sits at the centre of the capital just as historical guilt sits at the centre of national German memory.
But now Germany is beginning to look further back than the Second World War and has rediscovered its colonial empire. On the eve of the First World War, it presided over the third largest empire and committed horrific crimes to defend it. When in 1904 in German South West Africa, now Namibia, rebellions by the Herero and Nama peoples killed over 100 Germans, the backlash was brutal. The counter attack resulted in tens of thousands of lives, and the subsequent creation of concentration camps have now been acknowledged as acts of genocide. Last month, the German government agreed to pay €1.1 billion to Namibia in order to help affected communities.
As it was Bismarck’s government that brought the first colonies under state ownership, his statue in Hamburg should also pay, according to some public figures. Suggestions have ranged from decapitation, to smashing the whole statue, splattering the debris with paint and thus creating a ‘Park Postkolonial’.
But the argument is simplistic. It is true that Bismarck made German South West Africa a ‘protectorate’ but this was after the corrupt merchant Adolf Lüderitz had bought the land privately and was beginning to run into trouble without soldiers to protect it. A deafening chorus of pro-colonial lobbyists eventually pushed a reluctant Bismarck into taking over.
To blame Bismarck for the atrocities of 1904 to 1908 when he had retired in 1890 and died in 1898 — bitter at the German expansion which he saw as reckless — is historical nonsense. It also runs contrary to public opinion. A survey taken last week showed that over three quarters of Germans do not want the Bismarck statue removed — only 11% said they did.
The Bismarck statue in Hamburg was not built to praise brutal colonial practices in Germany’s overseas empire. It was built to commemorate a man who played a crucial role in creating the first German nation state. Smashing it does not address the complexities of his legacy, only public debate can do that.