Pacific Geographies (Sep 2021)

Book Review: Das Prachtboot. Wie Deutsche die Kunstschätze der Südsee raubten, by Götz Aly („The Splendid Boat: How Germans Stole the Art Treasures of the South Seas“)

  • Mückler, Hermann

Journal volume & issue
no. 56
pp. 32 – 35


Read online

Can and should one even write a review of a book that has already been extensively reviewed in all major journals and magazines and that continues to excite people? You can - and must! The political scientist, historian and journalist Götz Aly, who comes from Heidelberg, has succeeded in putting his finger in a wound with his latest book and, due to its popularity, has given a highly sensitive discussion its own twist. The merit of his book is to point out the problematic conditions of the German colonial epoch in Oceania, as seen from today’s perspective. But an unfortunate series of generalizations serves to undermine the value of this book as the basis for a factual discussion. First of all: Aly has deliberately ignored the most important scientific principle while at the same time insisting that his work is of a scientific nature: if a matter cannot be conclusively and clearly established, it must be addressed accordingly, and one should refrain from expressing conclusions that have a definitive character. From the available data, one can address possible strands of interpretation and weigh the pros and cons of the probability of individual aspects and formulate one’s own assessments; but it must always be kept in mind that things could have been entirely different. In addition, a necessary distance from the research topic should prevent one from being too “drawn in” and then possibly no longer being able to credibly represent the desired objectivity. Götz Aly fails to maintain this distance to the topic in many cases. Indeed, he claims to know what actually happened over a hundred years ago in the then young and historically short-lived German colony of German New Guinea. He does this by absolutizing indifferent and neutral formulations from his selectively consulted sources and prefers interpretations that support his own line of reasoning. This would be less problematic if he did not use his own conclusions to formulate allegations against historical contemporary persons as well as current institutions and colleagues. My comments below on the book – as the opening sentence already suggests – are not generated in a vacuum, but inevitably take up the discussions that have arisen around the book, at least in those areas where they are important for the assessing its merits. What is the book about? The installation of a large object, an approximate 15-metre-long outrigger boat from the island of Luf, one of the Hermit Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago (now part of Papua New Guinea), which came to Berlin in 1904 along with two masts and a square sail. Its inclusion in the newly opened Humboldt Forum in Berlin was a welcome occasion for Aly to further develop his theory that the vast majority of objects from German colonial times and kept in German museums are basically looted art. Starting from a specific object, whose exact acquisition history cannot be conclusively clarified, Aly launches a wide-ranging attack against those museums and institutions that store and exhibit objects from the German colonial era. This work cannot be viewed separately from a much broader discussion on several subject areas: the current debates about the present and future handling of objects acquired in colonial contexts, questionable object acquisition histories and restitution debates. One has to concede to Aly that his book proceeds with considerable precision, cleverly linking some of these points and connecting them to broader accusations.