World

Germany returns to Namibia skulls from colonial-era massacre, the 20th century’s first genocide

Reuters

Skulls and other remains of massacred tribespeople used in the colonial era for experiments to push claims of European racial superiority were handed over by Germany to Namibia at a church ceremony in Berlin.

In what historians call the first genocide of the 20th century, soldiers of German Kaiser Wilhelm slaughtered some 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama tribespeople in a 1904-08 campaign after a revolt against land seizures by German colonists.

At Wednesday’s ceremony, a Namibian delegation received the skulls and bones from German Foreign Ministry representatives. They will be taken to the Namibian capital Windhoek on Friday, where rituals will be carried out.

“Today, we want to do what should have been done many years ago — to give back to their descendants the remains of people who became victims of the first genocide of the 20th century,” said Petra Bosse-Huber, a German Protestant bishop.

Namibian Education Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa said last week that the government would create a group to decide whether to bury or display the repatriated skulls that had been kept in German museums.

Germany has acknowledged “moral responsibility” for the killings but to avoid compensation claims, has avoided making an official apology for the massacres.

Esther Utjiua Muinjangue, chairwoman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, said the handover ceremony would have been the perfect opportunity for Germany to officially apologize.

“Is that asking too much? I don’t think so,” she told reporters in Berlin earlier this week.

Ignored for decades, Germany’s colonial history is drawing increasing attention. A couple of years ago, the German Historical Museum curated a big exhibition on the subject.

Germany, which lost all its colonial territories after World War I, was the third biggest colonial power after Britain and France, which lost theirs after World War II.

During its 1904-08 campaign in what was then German South West Africa, the German Reich sent reinforcements to put down an uprising by tribespeople over their expulsion from their land and recruitment into forced labor. The Hereros had killed 123 German traders, settlers and soldiers.

In addition to the slaughter, thousands of Hereros were driven into the desert and died of thirst and starvation, and the rest were sent to concentration camps.

Legal representatives for the Herero and Nama people have brought a lawsuit against Germany in New York over genocide and property seizure carried out by German colonists.

The German government has entered negotiations with the Namibian government over possible reparations for the genocide but the lawsuit argues that Germany violated international law on the rights of indigenous peoples.