Bootsmodell Duala
Städtische Museen Freiburg, Exhibition „Freiburg and Colonialism", Boat model, Duala, End of 19th century, Foto: Axel Killian


What does the popular Black Forest metropolis have to do with colonialism, what do we have to do with it, and how does it affect societies that were on the receiving end of its depredations? The exhibition explores these questions. It illustrates the fact that and how we at home in the Global North benefit economically, politically and culturally from the enduring structures of oppression and exploitation created by colonialism. Freiburg as a case in point shows that this form of hegemony was underpinned by members of all classes throughout society.

Freiburg and Colonialism

People in and around Freiburg benefited from European colonialism for centuries. When the German Empire aggrandised territories in Africa, Asia and Oceania as part of its colonial strategy, commencing in 1884, Freiburg residents also actively participated in the oppression and exploitation of local populations. However, the majority of the local inhabitants were tacitly imbricated with the tyranny of colonialism in their everyday lives: for example, through the consumption of so-called colonial goods, membership in pro-colonial associations, or by attending racist ethnological expositions, aka human zoos.

German colonialism came to an end in 1919 as an outcome of defeat in the First World War. However, German colonial ideology persisted for a long time afterwards. Throughout the German Reich, including Freiburg, colonial advocates campaigned for a continuation of this kind of political rule. It was only after the Second World War that a critical examination of the structures of global injustice as a result of colonialism began in earnest. The history and effects of colonialism are now undergoing a thorough reappraisal.

Stadtkarte von Freiburg in dem verschiedene Orte mit Bezug zum Kolonialismus eingezeichnet sind.
Places related to colonialism in Freiburg, map: Städtische Museen Freiburg.

Legende: 1 Festplatz Stühlinger (Völkerschauen), 2 Karlsplatz Freiburg (Völkerschauen), 3 Hauptfriedhof (Grab von Theodor Leutwein), 4 Platz der Universität (Kolonialeiche anlässlich der Reichskolonialtagung in Freiburg gepflanzt im Juni 1935), 5 Ehemalige Städtische Festhalle im Stadtgarten (Kolonialausstellung anlässlich der Reichskolonialtagung in Freiburg eröffnet im Juni/Juli 1935), 6 Münsterplatz (Kolonialer Werbeaufmarsch und Kolonialkundgebung anlässlich der Reichskolonialtagung in Freiburg im Juni 1935), 7 Paulussaal (Zahlreiche Vortragsveranstaltungen mit prokolonialen Inhalten), 8 Colombischlössle (Freiburger Marine- und Kolonialausstellung als Teil der Marine- und Kolonialwoche im November 1933), 9 Stadttheater (Schauspiel "Deutsch-Südwest" anlässlich der Reichskolonialtagung im Juni 1935 aufgeführt, diverse Vortragsveranstaltungen mit prokolonialen Inhalten über Jahre hinweg), 10 Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Anthropolog. Alexander-Ecker-Sammlung, Lehrveranstaltungen mit prokolonialen Inhalten, Eröffnungsveranstaltung der Marine- und Kolonialwoche 1933)

Mission and Resistance

With the Bible in their hands and the Word of God in their mouths, Christian missionaries disseminated colonial oppression with the blessing of the Church. On many occasions, they even prepared the way for it. With the spread of Christianity, European values were transmitted to local populations – this was supposed to facilitate dominion over them. Because the lifestyles and norms of local societies differ from those of the West, the idea of the Christian mission was often justified as a 'civilising' agency.

Although many people adopted the new religion, some linked it to their previous traditions, thus preserving them for the future. Young women and men also ventured out from Freiburg and the Baden region as missionaries to non-European climes. These missions were supported by money that the church collected from the faithful across the German Reich. Thus, local Christians far away from the missions were indirectly involved in these missionary expeditions. Special donation boxes, which were almost ubiquitous in churches across the region, were used to collect donations.

In the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries paved the way for European influence and colonisation in China. As a result, many Chinese saw Christianity as a threat to the cohesion of their society. At the end of the nineteenth century, the YIHETUAN YUNGDON rebellion was directed against increasing Western influence and Christianity. Its suppression is referred to in German historiography as the "Boxer War".

Schools were a central site of missionary work in German colonial regions. Children were thus kept apart from traditional values and the influence of their parents and were moulded according to European Christian ideas. The crafting of small bags and other handicrafts was part of the teaching programme of missionary schools. This also served to discipline and prepare the children for labour in the exploitative colonial system.

Local populations often resisted the proselytising of Christian missionaries. Traditional healers played an important role in this enterprise, as they upheld religious traditions through their work. The medicine bottle comes from a Shambala healer from the north of Tanzania. Trappist missionaries stole it from him in order to prevent him from practicing his art of healing. The bag contains numerous "oracles" used in the practice of traditional religions in West Africa.

Expansion and War

Freiburg is linked in many ways to Namibia and its violent history as the former "protectorate" of German Southwest Africa. Until 2014, Freiburg University held fourteen skulls that came from the native people there. The Museum Natur und Mensch still holds about 200 everyday objects and artefacts from various Namibian peoples, such as the Ova Herero and Nama. They are 'gifts' to the museum from colonial officials, scientists and military personnel. One of  the 'donors' was the former governor of German Southwest Africa, Theodor Leutwein (1849-1921), who spent his retirement in Freiburg. During his tenure, the Ova Herero and Nama War (1904 – 1908), in opposition to German colonial rule, took place. Leutwein's successor, Lothar von Trotha (1848-1920), prosecuted this war with extreme brutality and cruelty that resulted in the first act of genocide committed by Germans in the twentieth century. It was not until 2021 that the German government officially admitted culpability for this atrocity on the part of the former German Empire.

New Ways to Work Together

In the course of two workshops, Nama-, Otjiherero- and Oshivambo-speaking Namibians selected photos and objects for the exhibition. Cultural exchange among the different peoples in Namibia was prevented by the South African policy of apartheid until independence in 1990. This created a number of prejudices that still exist today. The workshop helped to break down these prejudices through mutual encounters.

Ein Bildschirmfoto einer Videokonferenz mit vielen Teilnehmenden
Screenshot from the hybrid workshop between Freiburg and various locations in Namibia.


Zwei Frauen sitzen vor einem Laptop
Curator Beatrix Hoffmann-Ihde and collaborator Emily Mutota in the depot of the Ethnological Collection, photo by Lidong Zhao.


Eine Frau ist von hinten zu sehen, sie hält eine Dose in die Kamera eines La.ptops
Emily Mutota holds a tin can that was discussed by the participants in the workshop and selected for the special exhibition, photo: Lidong Zhao.

During a workshop, two of the participants note that their respective societies of origin, Nama and Ova Herero, know of such containers made from cattle horn, but use them for different purposes.

Worn like a bodice, these garments are made from the shells of ostrich eggs that have been filed down into round shapes. The ensuing platelets were threaded onto leather cords that extend down the back over the buttocks. Only wealthy women owned more than one of these prestigious OMUTOMBE, whereas poor women often did not own a single one.

The dagger was acquired by the then Museum für Natur- und Völkerkunde in 1962 from Hans Offe (1884-1982), a Freiburg  resident and tenured secondary school teacher. He acquired the object under unknown circumstances in 1934/35 at the Okavango River in today's Nkurenkuru / Namibia. Such daggers are rare today and mostly preserved in museums, to a large extent in German museums. It is part of the ethical obligation of these institutions to make non-European collections accessible online. The Museum für Natur und Mensch fulfils this obligation and has already published more than 1,000 objects in the online collection.

Consumption and Exploitation

Between 1869 and 1914, the number of colonial goods stores in Freiburg increased from ten initially to well over a hundred. Many Freiburg residents became accustomed to buying imported goods, such as coffee, cocoa and citrus fruits. Cotton textiles also became widespread during this period, as the once rare plant was now growing en masse and cheaply in the colonies on the plantations of German companies. Other raw materials were also exported to the German Empire, resulting in an economic boom.

The situation in the colonies was altogether different, where poverty and dependency on the part of the local populace was rife. Plantation economy resulted in the local populations forfeiting their arable land, while their labour and natural resources were exploited for export. In global terms, this created a North-South economic divide that persists to this day. The raw materials of many goods, which are not only offered by low-cost chains today, come from hitherto colonised countries.

Low-cost access to tropical fruit and to raw materials, such as spices, coffee, cocoa or sugar was an important motor for colonisation before and during the period of German colonial expansion. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, more and more people from all walks of life consumed these luxury goods. They thus become foodstuffs for everyday consumption. The increase in supply and demand was reflected in the growing number of stores selling so-called colonial goods in Freiburg between 1870 and 1914.

The Woermann company traded in West Africa from 1837, using its own ships from 1885. Ivory, rubber, coconut and bananas were among the goods traded, but above all palm oil. There was a huge demand for it due to European industrialisation. This valuable raw material was paid for with linen and tableware or with cheap liquor, which had a deleterious effect on the native populaces and their societies. Woermann's important trading partners included the Duala from 1868 onward. As middlemen, they controlled the palm oil trade on the north coast of Cameroon. That is why German traders wanted to drive them out of their native lands. The museum bought this boat model from Johannes Christian Heldt, who sailed to Cameroon as a captain on the Woermann Line.

The demand for cotton had been growing rapidly in Germany since the mid-nineteenth century. Cotton clothing developed from its status as a luxury item into a mass consumer product. The enormous demand for raw materials by German industry was increasingly met by cultivation on plantations in Togo, Cameroon and East Africa, which were run by trading companies. From 1900, the Kolonial-Wirtschaftliche Komitee (KWK – Colonial Economic Committee), of which Freiburg was a member from 1909, underwrote planned experiments in large-scale and high-yield cotton cultivation.

In addition to ostrich and marabou feathers from Africa, the feathers of numerous birds of paradise species were particularly coveted on the European fashion market. Birds of paradise live in New Guinea and on the surrounding islands. Hunting their feathers became a lucrative side business for settlers, planters and colonial officials during the German colonial period. To protect the animals from consumerism and extinction, the German Reichstag passed a Bird Protection Act in 1914. It prohibited the hunting of birds of paradise in German New Guinea.

Science and Appropriation

The quest for appropriation of all things exotic is closely linked to scientific enquiry and colonialism. This can also be witnessed in Freiburg, for example at the University and the Museum für Natur- und Völkerkunde. After the latter was founded in 1895, it received a large part of its objects from people active in the German colonies. Today, it can be assumed that among these objects are also a good deal that were appropriated from their owners by force. Therefore, the provenance of these objects is now being investigated in order to return them to their rightful owners, where appropriate.

Scientists at Freiburg University – above all the anthropologist Eugen Fischer (1874-1967) – used colonial infrastructures for their research. On the basis of their findings, they in turn ideologically underpinned the colonial system: for example, after a trip to the then "protectorate" of German Southwest Africa, Fischer elaborated his inhuman race theory and thus was able to forge a career during the Nazi dictatorship with ease.



Historisches Foto einer Vitrine eng befüllt mit Objekten aus Ozeanien.
Oceania display case from the permanent exhibition of the then Museum für Natur- und Völkerkunde, photo: Georg Röbcke, c. 1911.

The Museum für Natur- und Völkerkunde is now known as the Museum Natur und Mensch. It was founded in 1895 as an educational institution at the instigation of committed Freiburg citizens. Hugo Ficke (1840-1912), as honorary director, built up the collections by means of public appeals and requests to Freiburg citizens, also to residents in the German colonies. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the museum's holdings had burgeoned to such an extent that the museum's Oceania collection alone filled thirty-one glass display cases. Much of this collection came from colonies of the German Empire. In the process, colonial structures were exploited to amass the collections: this ranged from travel and transportation infrastructure via the – sometimes pronounced – relationships of dependency on the part of the local populace to the flagrant use of violence to appropriate the objects. This legacy is an object of vital critical scrutiny for the Museum Natur und Mensch today.

The "Brandeis" collection is a notable example of objects and artefacts garnered in the colonies of the German Empire in Oceania. A project funded by the German Centre for the Loss of Cultural Property is dedicated to its research. The ethnologist Godwin Kornes has been working on this project at the Museum Natur und Mensch since July 2020. More information on this provenance research project can be found here.

The rhinoceros is a formidable mammal and hunting it is a source of prestige for the hunter. This skull is a hunting trophy and the donor, Wilhelm Winterer (1879-1969), as an officer of the "Kaiserliche Schutztruppe in Deutsch-Ostafrika" (Imperial Protection Force in German East Africa), was possibly the marksman himself. Documentary evidence of the object’s provenance is not extant.

This glass is a former display and teaching object for schools and museums. Coffee was grown during the German colonial period in various regions, including Cameroon. Transmission of knowledge about such important "colonial plants" was easily and effectively supported by wet specimens.

Propaganda and Popularisation

After the First World War, the era of German Imperial colonialism came to an end. The territories in question were appropriated by the victors according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Many advocates of German colonialism refuted this peace accord and demanded the return of German colonies. According to their propaganda, colonies would be needed as additional Lebensraum (“living space") and also necessary to meet the demand for raw materials, as well as providing commercial markets. The Nazi regime supported this demand and, in 1935, a large colonial conference was held in Freiburg. It was geared towards to consolidating the pro-colonial influence upon the populace.

After the Second World War, colonial revisionism had had its day. But racism as the ideological root of colonialism remains a potent force, because it has already profoundly imbued the language, behaviour and attitudes of German society. Critical reappraisal of German colonial history necessarily includes, therefore, keen vigilance against racist thought, speech and actions.

On the occasion of the Reichskolonialtagung (Imperial Colonial Conference), a three-week colonial exhibition was opened in Freiburg in 1935. The NSDAP Gauleiter of South Baden, Robert Wagner, propagated in the local daily press that this exhibition articulated and defended the German claim to its colonies.

Objects from the then Museum für Natur und Völkerkunde were also shown at the Freiburg colonial exhibition.

Working FOR a Just Future - AGAINST the Consequences of Colonialism

To come to terms with the history of colonialism requires the recognition of its economic, political and social consequences, as well as the willingness to oppose them. Therefore, the needs, demands and criticisms on the part of those societies affected by the consequences of colonialism must be heard and taken seriously. The goal is to disrupt the unequal power relationship – which still obtains – between the Global South and the Global North and to reshape it as an equal relationship.

Many Freiburg citizens from different regions of the world are committed to this goal. They are following their vision of a fairer world that offers all people a future worth living. Representing the numerous Freiburg initiatives, three groups will have their say at the end of the exhibition. They lay down their critique of postcolonial structures and provide insight into their ideas of global justice and their commitment to it.

"And at that moment I realised that colonial power was still at work in him [...]".
Production: Ann-Kathrin Friedrich, Simon Weisser, Julius Metzdorf and Katharina Ritter with the support of other members of Color Esperanza e.V. 2021/22 Freiburg.


The exhibition catalogue is available in the museum shop.


The special exhibition was funded by the Baden-Württemberg Foundation and by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of ScienceResearch and Art (Namibia Initiative).

Logo der Baden-Württemberg-Stiftung









Exhibition catalogue



Freiburg and Colonialism : Yesterday? Today! Ed. von Beatrix Hoffmann-Ihde. Dresden: Sandstein Kommunikation 2022.

Translator: Timothy Connell.