Thursday, June 24, 2010
MEP Louis Michel says: “King Leopold II was a hero.”
Jean Ping, African Union Commission Chairperson, with Louis Michel, then European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid
Next week (30/06/2010) the Democratic Republic of Congo will celebrate its 50 years of independence. As the former colonizer of the area Belgium is going through a real Congo hype this year. Media and politicians can’t stop to talk about Congo, the historical relation with Belgium and the current situation in Congo. In many cases I think this is good. Many Belgians want to come clear with their past. It is late to do so, but better late than never. Unfortunately some grab this opportunity to rehabilitate the colonial atrocities committed in the name of civilization and Christianity.
Tuesday Louis Michel, former Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs (1999-2002), EU commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development (2002-2009), and nowadays member of the European parliament, claimed that Leopold II is a Belgian hero and talked in positive terms about all the good Belgian colonization brought to Congo. This is unbelievable, considering the amounts of historical research that already proved that king Leopold II’s colonial project was cruel and unnecessarily harsh. Although Stalin, who wasn’t much less cruel and demagogue than Hitler, gets a heroic role in current Russian historical literature, I wouldn’t recommend Belgian historians to claim that its most ruthless former ruler was a hero …
A result of Leopold's colonialism, adults and children had their hands amputated when they did not meet demands for rubber.
Leopold II was the founder and owner of the Congo Free State, which was his private colonial project. The European powers agreed on Leopold II’s undertaking on the condition that it was as a civilizing mission to bring civilization and modernization to the peoples of Congo.
Of course just as all colonial projects, it was presented as a civilizing mission, but was all about the money. When the car and bike industry boomed and the need for rubber increased dramatically everything was permitted to get as much rubber as possible. Adam Hochschild wrote a very interesting book about the atrocities committed in Congo during its exploitation (King Leopold’s Ghost). If you want to know more about it a quick search in google of “Leopold II, King of the Belgians” will enlighten you in the big role he played during the African colonization.
Of course King Leopold II is not the only sinner of his age. His endeavor is comparable to most European colonial projects, whether it is the British Empire, France or Germany. There were no saints in this story, and the civilizing mission was just a cover up to make a lot of money. I believe the Belgian story is best known because Belgium is a small and insignificant country which is easier to criticize than the bigger nations of Europe. Furthermore the Belgian colonial project didn’t start as a political national project but a private endeavor of one man, therefore easier to single out. But, believe me, all European nations were guilty of comparable crimes.
Today a respected Belgian politician is rewriting history. In a interview in P-Magazine Louis Michel felt the need to defend Leopold II’s legacy. He said that the king was “an ambitious visionary” and that he instinctively feels that “Leopold II was a hero, a hero with ambition for a small country such as Belgium”. According to him “Leopold II doesn’t deserve the accusation he has been subjected to”. He said that the Belgians built railways, roads, hospitals, schools and increased the economical growth. Economical growth? As if all peoples of the earth were waiting for being part of the big capitalistic world? Concerning the railway and roads, they were build for European economical purposes only. The towns were build for the colonizers, not the colonized (except as work force). Only after World War 2 the European nations started to invest in schools and hospitals for the Africans, but never enough to educate all anyway. Ten years later they realized that the colonial endeavor wasn't lucrative any more for the state, certainly not if they had to follow their own humanist logic of 'same rights for all people'. But having privatised the major companies, these private European companies could keep on making money in an independent (but controlled) African state. Thus started the wave of independece in Africa.
When Louis Michel was confronted with the fact that people were ruthlessly forced to work in mines and plantations during colonization he waved this argument away saying that this was the way things happened then.
This is too easy. So we can’t judge things that happened in the past because they were considered normal at the time? That means that we can’t judge the lynching of blacks in the southern US, we can’t judge the killings of Jews, we can’t judge racial discrimination, we can't even judge slavery … because this is the way things were in those days? Please! This is total bullshit! With his argumentation the peoples of the world should be grateful to Europe for having colonized them.
Louis Michel is also saying that it is unacceptable to use the world ‘genocide’ to name what happened to the Congolese people in the first 30 years of colonization. Research showed that the population dropped dramatically during that period, due to forced labor, terror policy and illnesses. But I can agree with Louis Michel on this point, I don’t think it was genocide. A genocide is the organization of mass murder, with the will to exterminate another group of human beings. I doubt the colonizers wanted to exterminate the peoples of Africa, they needed them as a labor force. But if they killed so many so unscrupulously it is because they didn’t even consider black people human beings. This is the way things were done in those days, and according to Louis Michel we can’t judge this, because the only thing the colonizer wanted, was for the greater good and the benefit of all.
Drawing such a conclusions is child like, immature, scandalous and shocking. That such a respected politician who doesn’t even have an infamous past as a racist or imperialist, makes such statements, makes it even more scary. Does this show the state of mind of mainstream European politics? If so, we better be prepared for the worst.