Why Europe continues to struggle with memorialising its colonial legacy

Alison Miller

Canada’s first National Truth and Reconciliation Day has come and gone, but the point of origin for the colonial system that has made the day necessary is notably silent besides a quiet acknowledgement from Queen Elizabeth II. Despite the success that Germany has had with addressing Holocaust history, and Europe’s memorialisation of World War One and Two, the continent continues to struggle with (and ignore) how to address its dark history as coloniser.

Yes, some concessions have been made at the EU level with regards to acknowledging the legacies left by colonialism, but acknowledgment at the country level (particularly England, France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium) are slow in coming, not thought through, or are applied unevenly.

The question, it seems, is two-fold. The first is why Europe, and especially France, continues to struggle to acknowledge its colonial past and the second is how that colonial past might be memorialised.

The Struggle of Apologising

Most frequently blamed for the lack of apology is that the events happened such a long time ago, and that the people that were responsible for them are no longer around, so it does not make sense to apologise for them, despite the fact that the last major European colony gained independence in the 1970s. Colonialism is deeply entrenched in the European system (the continent was built on the money, labour, and capital that colonialism brought) but the lack of education about the colonial project and its effects is lacking.

It might also be tempting to put the blame on far right-wing parties and their espousal of the myth of European exceptionalism for the resistance to addressing colonialism on the European continent, but major figures in multiple European countries have fallen short of real apologies, or have simply refused to give them. Emmanuel Macron, often considered a centrist, has refused to apologise to Algeria for what the French did during the colonial period. The Belgian King wrote a letter to the President of the Congo, but King Leopold II is not named as the perpetrator for the atrocities and the apology is incomplete. Britain has mentioned it “sincerely regrets” certain actions taken during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, and is willing to make reparations, but the extent of the British Empire at its height indicates this is only a very small first step. Shada Islam even argues that the only reason Europe is even thinking about apologising is because it is a strategic when trying to develop new economic agreements with African countries.

Of all of the colonial countries resisting addressing their colonial past, France presents one of the most interesting cases. Leading French intellectuals hold the belief that addressing colonialism is somehow intertwined in the transnational encroachment of American perceptions of social justice. The fear is that French secularism and the importance France places on integration will be subsumed by American practices, and that these practices will create fractures in French society. These beliefs have been at least somewhat endorsed by Macron, despite the fact that the country has yet to even address racial inequality by gathering official metrics on race and ethnicity in the country.

How can one begin to memorialise colonialism when even the act of acknowledging race becomes a national concern over the loss of societal cohesion, and apologies are perceived as strategic rather than genuine bids for acknowledgement of wrongdoing?

Transnational Reparations?

It is not likely that many of these colonising countries will make wide-reaching apologies for colonialism, even as a united front. At least, not for a long time. Too many of the countries within Europe are built on the legacies of colonialism, and the dearth of knowledge about colonial pasts leaves these countries slow to move.

However, the failures to address colonialism and the racism within Europe have come face to face with a transnational response to the racism present in countries that participated in it. Following the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement found its way into Europe, bringing issues that anti-colonial and anti-racist groups have been working on for decades to the forefront. Despite France’s concerns over the Americanisation of France, there was clearly something that struck a chord, as protests against police brutality sprung up in the country. In much the same manner, statues of Leopold II were graffitied and torn down, Britain underwent major overhauls of a variety of statues, streets, and buildings named after slave-traders and that invoked Imperialist ideals, and 15000 people attended protests in Berlin alone.

Getty Images, courtesy of the BBC

Prior to these protests, Europe reframed de-colonisation as mostly working on anti-racism and the renaming of streets and buildings. The George Floyd protests fit neatly into this method of European anti-racism action, but at a much larger scale. While an argument can be made that tearing down statues does not address the deeper legacies of the racism of colonisation, when Europe has been so slow to address these issues, addressing the very public facing memorialisation of colonialism seems like a good start.

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