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With their large eyes, intricate headgear and elaborate armor, Benin’s bronzes from what is now Nigeria are among the jewels of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.
But the metal plates and the sculptures of the XVIe in the XVIIIe centuries, which once decorated the palace of the Kingdom of Benin, may never again be exhibited in a German museum. After years of negotiations, Germany announced in April that it would begin returning the bronzes, looted during the colonial era, in 2022.
This initiative is part of a series of measures taken recently by Germany in an attempt to confront the crimes of the colonial period, such as the recent official recognition of the genocide it perpetrated in Namibia against the Herero and Nama peoples.
“I think that all sections of society are more and more aware that Germany also has a colonial history”, Judge Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which manages many museums in Berlin. It had been “Somewhat obscured by the great catastrophes of the twentiethe century: world wars and the Shoah ”, he adds.
The completion of the Humboldt Forum, a controversial new museum complex housed in the reconstructed former palace of the Prussian rulers in central Berlin, he said served as the trigger.
This complex, inaugurated in December 2020, has attracted strong criticism because it plans to display colonial objects such as bronzes from Benin in what was once the main residence of the Hohenzollerns, the imperial family who initiated German colonialism.
Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of history specializing in the colonial era at the University of Hamburg (north), believes that the Black lives matter movement, born in the United States, has also ” play a role “ in the mobilization in favor of a new approach to German colonial history.
The Benin bronzes, which are among the most famous works of African art, are today scattered in several European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.e century. The Ethnological Museum in Berlin has 530 historical objects from the old kingdom, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection outside of the British Museum in London.
Discussions are underway on the modalities for returning works of art and on the possibility for Berlin to keep some of them.
On the Nigerian side, Theophilus Umogbai, curator at the National Museum of Benin City (south), underlines for AFP that the restitution project is a “Positive development” for a country that has “Always demanded the repatriation of these stolen objects”.
” Crime against humanity “
This German initiative echoes similar efforts by other European countries and increases pressure on the British Museum, which holds some 700 bronzes.
In February, the Dutch government voted to repatriate items to former settlements like Indonesia. In France, following a landmark speech by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 in Burkina Faso, the return of 27 pieces of African art to Benin and Senegal with transfer of ownership was approved by Parliament in July 2020.
Although smaller than those of France and Great Britain, the German colonial empire encompassed parts of several African countries, including Namibia and Cameroon.
In Namibia, Germany was responsible for the massacres of the indigenous Herero and Nama peoples, which many historians consider to be the first genocide of the 20th century.e century.
In May, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany would now officially qualify as “Genocide” the killings in Namibia and pledged one billion euros in financial support to the descendants of the victims, spread over thirty years. But many Namibians rejected the deal, arguing that descendants of the Herero and Nama were not sufficiently involved in the negotiations and that the Windhoek government was forced to close the deal.
Historian Zimmerer also finds « regrettable » that Berlin does not go further to truly face the atrocities of the colonial period: “In Germany, and this applies to all European societies, there must be a clear recognition that colonialism was a structurally racist system of injustice and a crime against humanity. “