Why are the palm trees of the Africans white

Dispute over racism lecture: just a little bit canceled

Hannover cancels a lecture by historian Helmut Bley on colonial history. One initiative criticized the fact that a white man speaks.

The historian Helmut Bley is committed to solving colonial crimes Photo: Samantha Franson

HAMBURGtaz | When the opening by Claudia Roth (Greens) is followed by Armin Laschet (CDU) as a speaker, an event begins quite white. In the opening event of the international weeks against racism proclaimed by the UN, the round only became more diverse after 20 minutes, when the moderator Hadija Haruna-Oelker with the writer Jagoda Marinić, the deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews, Abraham Lehrer, and the journalist Heribert Prantl discussed.

A dispute in Hanover is not about diversity in the narrower sense either - but about being white, being black and the questions: “Who is speaking? And who doesn't? ”But one after the other. The city of Hanover wanted to participate in the United Nations (UN) international weeks against racism with four online events. One of them couldn't take place - it was canceled.

The renowned historian of African history, Helmut Bley, was to give a lecture entitled “Thinking about the colonial history of Africans”. The professor emeritus has been campaigning for the coming to terms with German colonial crimes in East Africa since the 1960s.

In 2013 he defended an expert opinion in court in which he described the imperial general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck as a war and human rights criminal. The general's daughters had sued Bley for denigrating the keepsake, but the court approved of Bley.

City administration weighs in

After the input of the historian, members of the initiative for “Discrimination Sensitivity and Racism Critique” (Idira) should present a petition for teaching critical of racism in Lower Saxony educational institutions and discuss it with Bley. But the initiative refused. The members decided that a white man, of all people, should explain in the context of racism how one thinks history of Africans is something they do not want to support. The city then canceled the event.

The city administration tries to downplay the incident. The event had not yet been announced, so there could be no question of a cancellation, says the communications manager of the mayor's office, Christian von Eichborn. However, the envisaged discussion format has not proven to be sustainable.

“We regret that,” says von Eichborn. “As the organizer, it is important to us to enable an open and liberal culture of discussion. But this must be wanted from all sides. ”The city had agreed with Bley to give his lecture instead as part of the“ Science in November ”series, and everything was fine.

Helmut Bley, historian

"A massive censorship movement that only considers those affected to be entitled to speak about a problem"

It's not that easy-peacy for Bley. He sees himself affected by Cancel Culture. After the three representatives of the initiative had left the conversation with the cancellation of their own participation, he had not yet assumed that he would not be allowed to speak then either.

Only a day later, a clerk in the city called him and canceled. "A wrong decision by a single clerk," says Bley. However, embedded in a larger problem: "A massive censorship movement that only considers those affected to be entitled to speak about a problem."

But that's not what the initiative is about, says Svea Ostermeier, who is a member of Idira and was involved in the conversation with Bley and the city. “We don't want to deny white people speaking up on racism,” she explains. After all, Idira is also made up of black and white students and non-students. What is important, however, is where you place yourself in the discourse.

“I'm positioned in white too,” admits Ostermeier. And if it is explicitly about black history, it would be better if primarily black people had their say, since they would be less likely to be heard in the predominantly white society anyway. In Hanover there are quite a few initiatives that the city could have asked for.

Ostermeier and her colleagues also didn't like the way Bley talked to them. With his posture and choice of words, the professor had signaled that he was looking down on her.

"He emphasized how experienced he was and assessed our work according to the motto 'When you are ready at some point, you will understand", "says Ostermeier. In addition, Bley relativized the colonial crimes in East Africa compared to those in other countries and generalized black identities by using the term "African".

Bley, on the other hand, accuses the initiative of not having discussed at all, but of having made the conversation impossible by blocking it. One could have talked about the fact that the title “Thinking about the colonial history of Africans” might not be appropriate when a white man spreads his thoughts.

Refusal no success

Bley would also have liked to convey to the initiative that, although he thinks their petition on educational work critical of racism is good, one should not limit oneself to German colonial history. After all, they only affected four countries. One must also take into account the reality of migrant school classes with Arab and Kurdish children and their stories.

The fact that the event was canceled as part of the Weeks Against Racism is not a success for Svea Ostermeier. “We're not against Professor Bley or his research. Rather, we would like white people to reflect on their privileges and figure out for themselves that it would be nice to give the floor to those affected in the context of racism. "