Germany returns human remains from colonial-era Namibian genocide

Kay Nietfeld/dpa/AFP | Berlin's Senator of Justice Dirk Behrendt (4th from R) poses with Esther Utjiua Muinjangue (C), chairwoman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation and Namibian delegation members on August 27 at Berlin's justice ministry.

Berlin will return human remains on Wednesday seized from Namibia a century ago following the slaughter of indigenous peoples under German colonial rule. But descendants are still waiting for an apology.


A Namibian government delegation will receive the remains, including 19 skulls, a scalp and bones, during a solemn church service in Berlin.

“We want to help heal the wounds from the atrocities committed by Germans at the time,” said Michelle Muentefering, a minister of state for international cultural policies at the German foreign ministry.

But representatives for descendants of the tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people – massacred between 1904 and 1908 after rebelling against their colonial overlords – have criticised the ceremony as insufficient.

Germany ruled what was then called South West Africa as a colony from 1884 to 1915.

>> Focus: The ghosts of German-ruled Namibia

Esther Utjiua Muinjangue, chairwoman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, said the handover of remains would have been “the perfect opportunity” for Germany to officially apologise for what is often called the first genocide of the 20th century.

“Is that asking too much? I don’t think so,” she told a Berlin press conference this week, describing the attitude of the German government as “shocking”.

No reparations

Muentefering told reporters on Monday that Germany still has “a lot of catching up to do in coming to terms with our colonial heritage”.

As part of ongoing talks with the Namibian government on addressing its brutal legacy in the country, the German government said in 2016 that it planned to issue a formal apology.

But negotiations aimed at coming up with a joint declaration on the massacres are ongoing.

Although Berlin has acknowledged the horrors that occurred at the hands of German imperial troops, it has refused to pay direct reparations.

It has argued instead that German development aid worth hundreds of millions of euros since Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990 was “for the benefit of all Namibians”.

Angered by Berlin’s stance, representatives of the Herero and Nama people have filed a class-action lawsuit in a US court demanding reparations.

>> Focus: Namibia's genocide: Descendants sue Germany for reparations

They also want to be included in the discussions between Germany and Namibia.

Germany wants the lawsuit thrown out on the grounds of state immunity from prosecution.

The New York judge in the case has yet to rule on whether to hear the lawsuit.

Namibian Culture Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, speaking alongside Muentefering in Berlin, said the two countries “still have many problems to solve”.

“We must ensure that, after we’ve reached agreements on damages, recognition and an apology, there’s a future in which the German and Namibian nations join hands and move forward.”

‘Extermination order’

Incensed by German settlers stealing their land, women and cattle, the Hereros revolted in 1904 and killed more than 100 German civilians over several days. The Nama people joined the uprising in 1905.

Determined to crush the rebellion, General Lothar von Trotha, under the direct command of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, signed a notorious “extermination order” against the Herero.

“Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without livestock, will be shot dead,” he said.

Survivors were sent to concentration camps, decades before those in which millions of Jews and others were exterminated during World War II.

An estimated 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people were killed from 1904 to 1908.

‘Scientific’ experiments

Dozens were beheaded after their deaths, their skulls sent to researchers in Germany for discredited “scientific” experiments that purported to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans.

In some instances, captured Herero women were made to boil the decapitated heads and scrape them clean with shards of glass.

Research carried out by German professor Eugen Fischer on the skulls and bones resulted in theories later used by the Nazis to justify the murder of Jews.

Wednesday’s handover proceedings mark the third time that Germany has repatriated human remains to Namibia; the previous occasions were in 2011 and 2014.

The remains, many of which were stored on dusty shelves in universities and clinics, were “often stolen ... brought to Germany without respect for human dignity”, according to the German foreign ministry.

Herero activist Muinjangue said the homecoming of the bones was always “very emotional”.

“I’m looking at the skull of a Herero or Nama peasant. A peasant who could have been my great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother or -father.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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