Why European countries are now trying to make amends for colonial-era harms

Presidents Paul Kagame and Emmanuel Macron at a press conference in Paris, 23 May 2018. (Source: Government of Rwanda)

On May 27, President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged France’s role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “I come to recognize the extent of our responsibilities,” he said, speaking at a memorial in Kigali. He asked for survivors’ forgiveness, while rejecting the idea that France held any direct culpability. “The killers who stalked the swamps, the hills, the churches, did not have the face of France. France was not an accomplice,” he said. Though he avoided apologizing explicitly, Macron’s statement marked a shift from France’s previous denial of its role in the genocide, and comes as part of a larger effort by the president to distance the country from its colonial past. In 2017, as a presidential candidate, Macron described France’s colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity.”

France is not alone among European nations in its efforts to make amends for past harms. Since 2013, at least six European nations — Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom — have offered apologies (or near-apologies) for colonial-era abuses in Africa or begun the process of returning African art and artifacts looted during colonization. These gestures have gained significant momentum within the past year, fueled in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement’s transformation into a global phenomenon following the killing of George Floyd in the United States last May.

European apologies and restitutions

The day after Macron’s remarks in Kigali, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany would recognize its colonial-era 1904–1908 killings of Herero and Nama people in Namibia as genocide. “We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today’s perspective: genocide,” Maas announced. “In light of the historical and moral responsibility of Germany, we will ask forgiveness from Namibia and the victims’ descendants for the atrocities committed,” he said. In recognition of the “immense suffering inflicted on victims,” Germany promised to fund $1.34 billion to support Namibia’s development.

Last June, Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” for “painful episodes” that occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the colonial period, including under King Leopold II’s notoriously harsh rule. His comments, made in a letter to Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, marked the first time a Belgian monarch formally expressed remorse for colonial-era abuses in Congo.

In 2017, Denmark formally apologized to Ghana for its role in the slave trade. Denmark should be “ashamed of its past,” Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said during a visit to the country as part of a trade delegation. “Nothing can justify the exploitation of men, women and children in which Denmark took part,” he said. Meanwhile, in 2013, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stated that the UK “sincerely regrets” the “torture and ill-treatment” suffered by Kenyans during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s. He stopped short of an apology, but offered £19.9m in compensation to elderly victims.

In addition to apologies for colonial-era abuses, a number of European countries have recently begun the process of returning African artifacts to their countries of origin. In 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Namibian genocide victims that had been taken to be used in now-discredited research that sought to prove Europeans’ racial superiority. In 2020, French MPs voted to hand back artifacts stolen from two of its former colonies. Senegal will receive a 19th-century sheikh’s sword and Benin will get back 26 pieces of the Treasure of Behanzin, including a famous king’s throne. This April, Germany agreed to give back to Nigeria hundreds of Benin bronzes that arrived in Europe after being looted by British troops in 1897. A month earlier, the University of Aberdeen in the UK announced it would return a Benin bronze “acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral.”

Why now?

More than six decades after colonialism ended across most of Africa, why are so many European governments now attempting to make amends for their imperial pasts? Black Lives Matter (BLM), which first emerged in 2013 and morphed into a global movement beginning last year, is a major factor. In the summer of 2020, cities across the U.S. erupted in protests in response to George Floyd’s killing by police officer Derek Chauvin (who was recently convicted of murder) in Minneapolis and inspired demonstrations in dozens of countries across the globe. Soon, the international protests took on a diverse nature, with activists shaping their demonstrations to address not only U.S. racism and police violence but also local concerns. In South Africa, protesters vented their frustration with their own law enforcement culture following the police killing of Nathaniel Jules, a 16-year-old mixed-race boy with Down syndrome, whose offense was venturing outside his home during a pandemic lockdown.

In Europe, BLM protests gave new energy to decades-old conversations about how former colonial powers should address their pasts. Across the continent, statues and other symbols associated with colonialism and racism were defaced or destroyed. In the UK, protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and sank it in a nearby river. In Ghent, Belgian protesters used red paint to deface a bust of Leopold II with “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s final words. In the Netherlands, protests prompted Prime Minister Mark Rutte to withdraw his support for “Black Pete,” a controversial Christmas tradition, and acknowledge that racism is “not just an American phenomenon. It’s also a Dutch problem.”

The results of the pressures exerted by these protests extends beyond monuments and holiday traditions. Ghent’s King Leopold statue was later removed after being defaced. But more significantly, the protests likely influenced King Philippe’s decision to break tradition and publicly express regret for the atrocities carried out by Belgians — including his relative, King Leopold — in Congo. The specter of colonial abuses also featured in France’s BLM protests, and may have played a role in President Macron’s decision to acknowledge France’s part in the Rwandan genocide. Germany’s decisions to return its stolen Benin bronzes and to recognize its colonial-era killings in Namibia as a genocide also came a year after widespread BLM protests in the country.

From revisiting offensive monuments to more substantive steps like apologies and reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement has proven a catalyst for significant shifts in European nations’ approaches to grappling with their colonial pasts. While last summer’s George Floyd protests may have faded, their impacts — as the recent moves by Germany (on Namibia) and France (on Rwanda) indicate — are likely here to stay.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement