From the Colonization of Africa to Richard von Weizsäcker

September 2023

Germany hasn’t processed its colonial past the way it confronted Nazi-era crimes. A search for traces in Berlin.

By Pierre Hazan

Kolonialismus Deutschland

“You will be locked up in a room for exactly 60 minutes. This room contains several locks, doors, and devices. Your goal is to solve all the quests in order to escape the room. You will find hidden hints and tasks all over the room. These hints should help you solving the questions and progressing the room.

In this advertisement, the company Exitroom  invites potential customers to enter into its “escape room” facility. Next to it, there is the Exitroom café, which sells burgers, coffee, and waffles. I observe this standing in front of 92 Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin. This had once been number 77 Wilhelmstrasse, the residence of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 19th century. It's hard to imagine that an escape room on the first floor of a graceless eight-storey building has replaced a residence in which the history of a continent – and even the world – was transformed. It was at this location between November 15, 1884, and February 26, 1885, that the fate of Africa was settled for many decades to come. 

During these 101 days, Bismarck invited representatives of ten European monarchies, as well as French republic, the Ottoman Empire and the United States of America. The vast majority of the white men there had never set foot in Africa. But they took decisions that changed the course of the continent.

No Africans were consulted, nor even informed, about this conference. Why should they have been? These European diplomats were utterly convinced that they embodied civilization itself. They will, they said, bring progress to "these negroes." This progress was symbolized by the “three Cs” that Scottish explorer David Livingstone had articulated: colonization, Christianity, and commerce.

A huge map of Africa in front of them, these men set out the rules of colonization in polished French. Doing so, they triggered a frantic scramble for inland Africa, made possible by the invention of the machine gun and the steamship. Against a backdrop of rivalry between the British Crown and France, as well as Belgium, Germany, Portugal, and Italy, ruthless colonization ensued, leading to the systematic exploitation of people and raw materials – and to institutionalized racism. 

Today, no physical trace remains today of Otto von Bismarck's chancellery. It was destroyed by Anglo-American aircraft in World War ll. Subsequently, East Germany built housing for the communist nomenklatura on the site before an escape room was finally built in the heart of a reunited Germany.

How can Europe face the crimes of its colonial past?

How could Europe extricate itself from this 19th-century past, of which nothing remains except a metaphorical trace, an escape room? A far more ambitious way out to help Europe face its responsibility for one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated, coupled with the unprecedented plundering of an entire continent. 

From the Robert Bosch Stiftung on 32 Französische Strasse, I walked to 92 Wihlelmstrasse, hoping perhaps to find snippets of this 19th-century past. Yet, I encountered only scars of the 20th century. At a distance of 220 meters (GoogleMap accuracy), or a two-minute walk, is where Adolf Hitler's bunker once lay. It is now walled off and inaccessible to prevent nostalgics turning it into a place of pilgrimage. On Gertrud-Kolmarstrasse, the site of the one-time bunker is indicated by a modest sign, planted in a weedy parking lot. In the adjacent street, tourist coaches pour out their passengers at the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. On the other side of the memorial lies the sprawling Tiergarten park, with a small installation where a film runs regularly. It shows gay and lesbian couples kissing passionately, a kind of riposte to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Further into the Tiergarten, there is a memorial to the Roma and Sinti murdered under the Third Reich, and an imposing monument to the Soviet liberators, built
a few months after the capture of the city in 1945 by the Allied powers. Continuing along Wilhelmstrasse, we come to the famous Unter den Linden mile, just a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate, which marked the division of the city between East and West during the Cold War. Despite the profusion of memorials, none here mark the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference.

On my search engine, I type in Wilhelmstrasse.” A new entry pops up. It’s the name by which the eleventh trial of Nazi dignitaries in Nuremberg is known because the Third Reich ministries were located on this street. I read that this trial is officially called The United States vs. Ernst von Weizsäcker, et al.”

As Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow looking for traces

I'm a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow and can't help but be intrigued. From what kind of world does Richard come from? How does he position himself in relation to his father, a war criminal sentenced to seven years in prison for crimes against humanity, eventually amnestied eighteen months later? How did Richard become one of the great consciences of democratic Germany? My curiosity leads me away from my research into the European colonial enterprise of the 19th century and towards Richard von Weizsäcker. I am reminded of the words of a mystic rabbi from the late 18th century, Nachman of Breslau: Never ask someone who knows the way, because you might not get lost”. 

I learn that Richard had two older brothers. On the second day of the war, Heinrich
died by a bullet through his throat. Richard kept watch at his body that night. Richard himself was wounded three times and rose to the rank of captain by the war’s end. His other older brother Claus Friedrich was both a philosopher and an outstanding physicist. His teacher was Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics. On September 13, 1939, Claus Friedrich took part in the meeting at which the nuclear weapons program was launched. He became an assistant to Werner Heisenberg, who headed the Third Reich's atomic bomb project. Strange coincidence: I saw the film Oppenheimer, named after the US American physicist who led the Manhattan Project, about the US program to develop a nuclear bomb that was originally supposed to have been dropped on Germany, but which was ultimately used against Japan.

The trial and the role of Richard von Weizsäcker

But let's return to the trial of The United States vs. Ernst von Weizsäcker et al., which began on November 15, 1947, and lasted the longest of the twelve Nuremberg trials. The US prosecutor, Telford Taylor, accused Ernst, who was State Secretary of the Foreign Affairs between 1938 and 1943, of crimes against humanity, and more specifically of the deportation of French Jews. The von Weizsäcker men came from an illustrious, ennobled Prussian family. Ernst was awarded the Iron Cross for his courage during World War I. He pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. I recall the photo of Ernst that I saw at the villa museum in Berlin where the Wannsee conference was hosted on January 20, 1942, a meeting in which he did not take part. He delegated his subordinate, Martin Luther, who was one of the 15 participants who formulated, in the space of a 90-minute breakfast, the Final Solution.

I immersed myself in Ernst's trial. His son Richard, then a law student at Göttingen University, took part as a defense assistant council. I found a photo in the US archives of Ernst and Richard. The photo was taken during a break in the two-year trial. Ernst, seated, is smiling at his son wearing a lawyer's gown and looking worried. Fatherly love shines through Ernst's eyes. Richard tries to convince the judges that his father was an "insider resistance fighter." But the evidence doesn’t bear this out.

Prosecutor Taylor recalls the words spoken by Ernst's other son, Claus Friedrich, during this trial when asked: Did your father never consider helping the Jews by open contradiction, that is, by protesting publicly against Hitler's anti-Semitic policy?” Claus Friedrich responded:
Well, we discussed that, too, and I can tell you exactly what my father's opinion was on that point. He said, 'If one did that, one would become a martyr, but one would certainly not help the Jews by doing it.' ” (The Ministries Trial, para. 472)

The portrait of Ernst that emerges from reading the trial is of a patriot who was never a Nazi fanatic. He joined the party in 1938 and was awarded an honorary title in the SS. His professional skills and his social background propelled him to the very top of the totalitarian machine. This resume evokes the banality of evil, as described by Hannah Arendt. Ernst is a cog in this bureaucracy, a Mitläufer in the upper echelons. He tries to survive while worrying inwardly about the race to the abyss that Hitler is taking Germany, and was probably shocked by his criminal policies.

Richard built his life on this personal and family history. And it was four decades later in 1985, when as President of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn that this former Wehrmacht officer who defended his father at the Nuremberg trials found the right words to speak of Germany's responsibility before the West German parliament. He delivered a speech of rare moral rectitude, inviting his compatriots, young and old, to come to terms with the past, as the only way to reconcile with all of the peoples who suffered under Nazism. He made many other gestures, notably to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Israel, contributing to Germany's work of remembrance and helping to change its image. This earned him respect at home and abroad. 

Richard von Weizsäcker’s courage to face Germany’s past has yet to be found by many Europeans, some 140 years after the Berlin Conference. And the Wilhelmstrasse escape room won't change that. 

Pierre Hazan rund grau


Pierre Hazan is Senior Adviser with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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