Colonial Spectres

I recently migrated from Australia to Germany with my wife so she could take up a postdoctoral position. Although I have lived overseas before, this move was quite different from my experience of doing fieldwork in Iran, which always had an end date attached. In comparison, this current move could be either temporary or permanent, depending on our experiences in our new home. As such, the prospect of leaving Australia with no given date of return was cause for me to pause and think about my relationship with the country that I have called home for almost my entire life.

One of the questions that stayed with was how my relationship with Australia’s colonial legacy would change once I was removed from the experience of actually being on Australian soil. Few of us who move in anthropological circles can be unaware of the push to recognise both anthropology’s own colonial legacy and the ways in which colonialism is an ongoing process, rather than one that was bounded by a particular historical period. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be moving into the mainstream, although it goes without saying that Australia is a long way from a true reckoning with its colonial past.

But what would it mean to be no longer ‘in country’ in Australia? How would the legacies of British colonialism, and the attempted extirpation and survival of Australia’s indigenous peoples, be refracted in the experience of living in a new country with a very different colonial past?

German history

Germany has its own colonial history. The German colonial empire once stretched across Africa and into the Pacific, and although nowhere near as large and long lasting as the French or British empires, it carried with it its own examples of bloody encounters and genocides. How it reckons with them remains opaque, at least for me. In discussing this with scholars here in Germany, it seems that awareness of Germany’s colonial empire and the atrocities that went on within it remain low priorities in the educational system. Outside ethnological institutes, there seems to be little in the way of public acknowledgement that these took place.

On the other hand, one thing that Germany has grappled with is the legacy of more recent atrocities. Memorials to the holocaust are everywhere, as are reminders of the danger of right-wing extremism. The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is not alone. There are plenty of other monuments in smaller towns, like Mainz where I now live, or Wiesbaden, just across the river. These take the form of either newly built modernist synagogues, or in some cases, empty plots of land specifically left so, standing as testimony to the terror unleashed on the Jewish community, not to mention other minorities (like the Roma) and political and religious dissidents.

The project of memorialising and remembering this terrible history might give Australia some pause for thought on how it too could better work to integrate colonial violence into not just the curriculum of students, but the visual horizons of both Australians and people who visit the country. Of course, this does not mean that Germany should escape critique of its as yet underrepresented colonial history.

An inescapable reality

Returning to the question of colonialism and its legacies outside of Australia, if I were to hazard an early (and perhaps half-baked) analysis, it would be that for those of us who leave Australia, especially white Australians, our history of colonialism and our entanglements with it are ultimately inescapable. After all, our prosperity, and with it the possibility of this kind of mobility, is contingent on a colonial interaction. We (and again, especially those Australians with European heritage and who identify as ‘white’) are the beneficiaries of the expropriation of indigenous peoples, and that isn’t suddenly severed by moving away from the geographically emplaced experiences of colonialism. It may be an uncomfortable reality to grapple with, but we remain ensconced in relations and dynamics of power that are ultimately inescapable. Only by recognising this and putting real effort into a national attempt to achieve reconciliation, not just in some tokenistic sense but in the kind of meaningful, educative and memorialising sense that has been (at least partially) enacted here in Germany (if only in recognition of crimes during WWII), can we properly grapple and come to terms with this legacy that we carry with us wherever we go.

[The photo of the National Carillon lit up in the Reconciliation Week is taken by Clair Bizhao Zhang.]

[The photo of the Invasion Day rally in Melbourne is taken by Johan Mouchet sourced from Unsplash.]

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