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Exhibition: The trappings and travesty of the German Empire

Until its defeat and eventual collapse at the end of the First World War in 1918, the German Empire was one of the period’s major colonial powers, expanding its overseas territories rapidly as part of the “Scramble for Africa”, establishing colonies such as German South West Africa and German East Africa that it viewed with a mixture of fascination and contempt.

In a forthright attempt to confront and understand an episode that other former colonial nations have largely ignored, curators at the Deutsches Historiches Museum in Berlin have brought together some 500 objects to help examine imperial Germany’s colonial ideology, hinged as it was upon racial superiority, and to shed light on the motives of the missionaries and merchants, administrators, soldiers and settlers who established its empire. German Colonialism: Fragments Past and Present underlines the ways in which the power dynamic between the colonised and coloniser played out in museum collections, which brimmed with newly collected objects from overseas, and in material culture produced at home. Photographs, consumer goods and advertising, this exhibition shows, all transmitted themes of conquest and race that still hold sway today.

Germany was forced to relinquish its overseas territories as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in 1919 after its devastating defeat in the First World War. The resentment this caused led to a rosy-reimagining of German-colonial relations, and played a part in cementing Adolf Hitler’s popularity with his promises of territorial expansion east.

An examination of Germany’s colonial legacy is only just beginning to gain momentum, with debates about the necessity to admit to a genocide against the Herero and Nama people from 1904 to 1907, in which tens of thousands died in what is now Namibia. The show hopes to further this examination by looking at the social and artistic legacy of that period, both within the territories affected but also in present-day Germany.

German Colonialism: Fragments Past and Present is being shown at the Deutsches Historiches Museum in Berlin until May 14 (www.dhm.de)

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