Restitutions, Reparations, “Reparation” – Towards a New Global Society?

Restitutions, Reparations, “Reparation” – Towards a New Global Society?

Carla Seemann / Laura Vordermayer /Mario Laarmann, Saarland University, Saarbrücken
Villa Vigoni
Vom - Bis
09.09.2021 - 13.09.2021
Sarah Carlotta Hechler, Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin / Freie Universität Berlin; Fabiola Obame, Université Bretagne Occidentale, Brest

How can reparation(s) be conceived of from a decolonial perspective that reflects on Europe's current condition and its relations to the world? The site itself is linked to the topic discussed at the summerschool: On Villa Vigoni, in possession of the German Federal Republic since 1986, was levied a prejudgment attachment in 2008 due to reparation demands by the Greek State for war crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The claim was finally rejected due to the site’s function as a German-Italian Centre for European dialogue. This mission is now fostered in a new cooperation initiated by Saarland University with Villa Vigoni, called “Exzellenzlabor Europa,” which represents an international forum for discussion in social sciences and cultural studies. The summer school marked its beginning and placed the thematic focus of the first encounter on calls for material and symbolic reparations as well as the related ethical consequences for Europe’s position in the context of post-postcolonialism. As the anthropologist David Scott has underlined in his study “Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality” (1999), the future is about finding a form of living together that does not consist in the universalization of a centre.

In the introductory remarks by CHRISTIANE SOLTE-GRESSER and MARKUS MESSLING (Saarbrücken), the latter highlighted how this resonates with Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s conception of a “lateral universalism”[1] which allows thinking asymmetries based on a horizontal approach. Furthermore, concerning the question of what reparation means, one can depart from Diagne’s notions of irreparability (or, spoken with Kader Attia, the “conscience of the wound”[2]) and ubuntu, what signifies “making humanity together.” This perspective is closely linked to Felwine Sarr’s and Bénédicte Savoy’s conception of a “reparation of a relation”[3] through acts of restitution as well as to the reparatory potential of literature.[4] Both aspects are crucial in Igiaba Scego’s writings, such as the short story “Icona” (2018) on Haile Selassie’s visit to Italy in 1970 or her book “Roma negata” (2014), which deals with the restitution of the stele of Axum, focussing on a double void: the place where the stele was before, Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome, and the lack of decolonization of knowledge in Italy.[5]

IGIABA SCEGO (Rome) was invited to the first panel session and participated via videoconference in a conversation with author HELENA JANECZEK as well as the participants of the summer school. She highlighted that, in her texts, she challenges her different identities as a woman, a Somali, an Italian, a Roman, a person from the Global South, etc. and explores the construction of Blackness and Whiteness. This is also reflected in her latest book, “La linea del colore” (2020), a combination of a historic novel – referring to two Afro-American women, the sculptor Edmonia Lewis and the abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond – and a fiction containing autobiographical elements based in present time. The way she deals with colonization in her texts is twofold: On the one hand, her writing has a social and political dimension as it takes her own experience as a starting point in order to fill the lack of literature on colonization in Italy. On the other hand, her position between Somalian and Italian traditions is expressed in the style of her writing, which is inspired by Somali oral poems and fairy tales as well as the Italian literary canon from Dante and Petrarch to Calvino. Scego underlined that she would not consider herself an activist but rather a writer and a citizen worried about racism on the ground of her personal experience. Concerning the question of where reparation happens, one can thus find a reparatory dimension within Scego’s literature, but also in her function as a public intellectual advocating for Italy’s confrontation with its colonial history.

AURÉLIA KALISKY (Berlin), from the perspective of a researcher and her family history, looked at the reparation work of Holocaust survivors by putting it in relation with that of survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Drawing on the evolution of the word "reparation" over the centuries and from one field to another, she explained that the indelible character of a past fault can be mitigated in the present by symbolic gestures. To this, she showed that her mother's unpublished manuscript was an attempt to repair through art, and, in another way, the marriage to her father, a Holocaust survivor. Both witnesses of the genocide, they invented their own method to heal their wounds. To this end, Kalisky explained that the artistic professions exercised by her parents, the marriage and the births of her brother and her are symbolic reparations that testify to the will to live together of a new generation which intends to repair itself – other than by the means proposed by the German state. Justice, as shown by the example of Rwanda, certainly plays an important role in public recognition, but its actions remain insufficient for reparation. Kalisky concluded that pain can only be overcome by working on memory and the past. The word, and especially the literary and artistic word, is central to reconciliation, since it is through it that the ritual of mourning takes shape and marginalized voices can be heard.

The topic of the first reading session with Hannah Grimmer (Kassel) and Jakob Wigand (Hamburg) was Michael Rothberg’s concept of “Multidirectional Memory,” elaborated in his book of the same title – supplemented by the subtitle “Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization” –, which was published in 2009 and in German translation in 2021. Moreover, the current debate in Germany, called the “catechism debate” or “Historikerstreit 2.0,” in the context of Dirk Moses’ article “The German Catechism” (2021) was discussed.[6] The work of Rothberg, professor for English and Comparative Literature and holder of the chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of California, inscribes itself in a (third) phase of Memory Studies, which increasingly takes into consideration transnational aspects of memory cultures. One can consider it to be preceded by a first phase that was marked by the writings of Maurice Halbwachs, Walter Benjamin, and Aby Warburg, and a second phase, in which especially Jan and Aleida Assmann’s as well as Pierre Nora’s research was central – taking into account, of course, that these periods are not neatly separated, and the various approaches continue to be discussed.[7] According to Rothberg, memory is not competitive; he underlines rather its relational character: “[P]ursuing memory’s multidirectionality,” he writes, “encourages us to think of the public sphere as a malleable discursive space in which groups not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being through their dialogical interactions with others; both the subjects and spaces of the public are open to continual reconstruction.”[8] Arguing that memory is multidirectional, Rothberg positions himself against the “hierarchy of suffering” induced by a competitive approach to memory, which would often underlie the “uniqueness discourse”[9] on the Holocaust. The professor of Global Human Rights History Dirk Moses takes the challenge of the singularity-approach even further in his article “The German Catechism” (2021). However, as stated in the discussion, he seems to reintroduce a competitive stance, which would be contrary to Rothberg’s conception of multidirectional memory.

Benicien Bouchedi (Metz) and Sahra Rausch (Gießen) questioned Felwine Sarr's essay “Habiter le monde. Essai de politique relationnelle” (2017) and Achille Mbembe’s speech “Of African Objects in Western Museums” (2018). In a cross-read of these texts, the researchers highlighted the importance of symbolic reparations in these two authors and how they could allow for a reparation of history. The discussion around the two works showed that repair, for it to be effective, must be done on two essential levels: on the one hand, material reparation, which requires restoration of property taken from colonized countries even if the meaning of these objects often escapes the local populations, and on the other, symbolic reparation through work on the imaginary, which helps to generate a new way of conceiving and inhabiting space based on respect for the relationship with living things and on a non-hierarchical approach.

In his intervention, OLIVIER REMAUD (Paris) came back to the necessity of making visible the elements of nature, which until then were invisible, of putting back on the scene, what we did not pay attention to anymore. He postulated that by learning to look again, one opens up to a cosmopolitan relationship. The importance of scientific data intervenes at this level because it helps to understand the "living" dimension of nature and to leave the imaginary of the landscape that sometimes frightens, sometimes fascinates. Also, he invited us to move away from the sublime which only shows the radiance by creating distance. Based on “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” by Wall Kimmerer, Remaud explained that the place of language in the designation of living things is therefore that of placing forgotten audiences in the field of visible living things. Language describes the realities of ecosystems and shows the complexity of the crisis. In conclusion, the philosopher suggested that when a space is extremely destroyed, nature repairs itself through a process of "rewilding," because reparation requires that humans reinsert themselves very discreetly into nature without leaving too large a trace. Humans ought to move to the background so that other living beings can exist.

JONAS TINIUS (Saarbrücken) and ANGELICA PESARINI (Toronto) stressed the bodily dimension of injury and repair. The body can carry a history of injuries linked, for instance, to gender, racialization, and experiences of displacement and thus constitutes a political and cultural field. Based on the readings of Sara Ahmed’s text “Racialized Bodies” (2002) and Frantz Fanon’s “The Fact of Blackness” (1952), the violence of the gaze that categorizes racially and marks the deviation from the (White) norm was discussed. The question of norms is also apparent in Kader Attia’s reflections on repair that rely on the idea of leaving injury visible, found for example in “primitive” African societies.[10] Furthermore, suggestions for a “Museum of repair” were collected and the participants put forth irreparability and relationality as key prerequisites for thinking such a museum, that ideally was imagined like an open and moving space.

The irreparable dimension in attempts to repair and their relational character were also underlined in the final discussion. Beyond that, the problematic aspect of the instrumentalization of reparation that rather aims to forget than to remember was raised. At the same time, different approaches to reparation in spheres like literature, philosophy and politics were highlighted as well as the need for “translation” of calls for reparation, especially in literary and artistic works, into political discourse.

Conference overview:


Markus Messling / Christiane Solte-Gresser (Saarland University)

Panel I with Igiaba Scego (Rome)

Panel II with Aurélia Kalisky (Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin)

Author reading by Olivier Remaud (École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris)

Reading session, moderated by Hannah Grimmer (Kassel University) and Jakob Wigand (Hamburg University)

Reading session, moderated by Benicien Bouchedi (Metz University) and Sahra Rausch (Gießen University)

Launch event of the new cooperation “Exzellenzlabor Europa” between Saarland University and Villa Vigoni

Artist talk with Helena Janeczek, hosted by Maike Albath (Deutschlandfunk Kultur)

Panel III with Olivier Remaud (École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris)

Panel IV with Jonas Tinius (Saarland University) and Angelica Pesarini (Toronto University)

[1] “Universel latéral”; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, De Mauss à Claude Lévi-Strauss, in: Signes, Paris 1960, p. 143-157, came up with the concept (p. 150). Diagne refers to it f. ex. in his article: Penser l’universel avec Etienne Balibar, in: Raison publique, No. 19, 2014/2, p. 15-21, here p. 19. See also: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, in: id. / Jean-Loup Amselle, En quête d’Afrique(s): Universalisme et pensée décoloniale, Paris 2018, p. 76.
[2] “Conscience de la blessure,” Kader Attia, La réparation c’est la conscience de la blessure, in: Leïla Cukierman, Gerty Danbury / Françoise Vergès, Décolonisons les arts, Paris 2018, p. 11-14.
[3] “[…] compenser consiste ici en une démarche visant à réparer la relation,” Felwine Sarr / Bénédicte Savoy, Restituer le patrimoine africain, Paris 2018, p. 69.
[4] See the study of a reparatory ambition in 21st century French literature by Alexandre Gefen, Réparer le monde: la littérature française face au XXIe siècle, Paris 2017.
[5] Igiaba Scego, Rome Suppressed, 11th April 2020: (2.12.2021)
[6] See: Dirk Moses, The German Catechism, in: Geschichte der Gegenwart (online), 23rd May 2021: (2.12.2021)
[7] Cf. Astrid Erll, Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart 2017.
[8] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford, California 2009, p. 5.
[9] Ibid., p. 9.
[10] Cf. Kader Attia, Injury and Repair, in: Mousse Magazine (online), 10th May 2018: (2.12.2021)