Skulls Repatriated – But No Official German Apology

Karina Boeckmann

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 4 (IPS) — A delegation of Namibian government representatives and leaders of the indigenous Herero and Nama people who came to Germany to repatriate 20 skulls of their ancestors were once again disappointed in their hopes for dialogue and an official apology.

The skulls were of victims of the mass murder of 80,000 Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908, which were stolen by the former colonial ‘Kaiserreich’ for racial research some 100 years ago.

“When the Great Powers partitioned Africa in 1884, unfortunately we were allotted to the Germans,” said Advocate Krukoro of the Ovaherero Genocide Committee, one of the 60 Namibian delegates, during the Sept. 27-Oct. 2 visit to Berlin.

In 1904, some 17,000 German colonial troops commanded by General Lothar von Trotha launched a brutal war of extermination against the Herero and Nama people, after they revolted against the continued deprivation of land and rights. Following their defeat at Waterberg on Aug. 11, 1904, they were hunted, murdered or driven deep into the Omaheke desert where they died of thirst.

Thousands of men, women and children were later interned in German concentration camps, and died of malnutrition and disease. The territories of the Herero and Nama people were seized, their community life and means of production destroyed. The discussion about the mass murder did not start until Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990.

Germany’s foreign ministry has routinely avoided the use of the term “genocide” in dismissing the Herero and Nama peoples’ claims for compensation, using instead vague phrases such as “Germany’s historic responsibility with respect to Namibia.”

Cornelia Pieper, the minister of state in the German foreign office, did the same this time around. “Germans acknowledge and accept the heavy moral and historical responsibility to Namibia,” she said on Sep. 30 at the Charité University in Berlin, which hosted the ceremony in which the skulls of nine Herero and eleven Nama people were handed over to the Namibian delegation.

The remains of four females, 15 males and one child were part of the Charité anatomical collection. They were used by German scientists in research that had the aim of proving the supposed racial superiority of white Europeans over black Africans.

Now, 100 years later, the president of the executive board of the 300-year-old institution, Karl Max Einhaeupl, deplored “the crimes perpetrated in the name of a perverted concept of scientific progress” and said: “We sincerely apologies”.

The treatment of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia – mass extermination on the grounds of racism, extermination through labor, expropriation of land and cattle, research to prove the alleged superiority of white people – is widely seen as a precursor to the Holocaust.

Eugen Fischer, a German professor of medicine and eugenics who conducted studies on the offspring of German or Boer fathers and native Namibian women in the former German colony, later became the teacher of Josef Mengele – known as Auschwitz’s ‘Angel of Death’ – who carried out gruesome medical experiments in the Nazi concentration camps.

Development aid is not compensation

Berlin has consistently refused to pay reparations to its former colony, using the development aid argument: that since Namibian independence Germany has provided the country with a total of 500 million euro in aid.

But the majority of the Herero want an official apology. “Development aid is welcome, but may not be used to cover up the genocide,” said Supreme Chief Alfons Maharero.

Minister Pieper left the ceremony at the Charité shortly before Namibia’s minister of culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo, rose to speak.

“Imagine a German state minister leaving a hall where a ceremony is being held to repatriate the human remains of victims of German genocide without hearing the delegation head, a Namibian minister, and without hearing what the highest representative of the Nama and Herero has to say,” said Yonas Endrias, a political scientist from Berlin.

“She has no sense of dignity or honor. She walked out on the display of human remains of the first German genocide and the first German concentration camp,” he added.

The Namibian delegates interpreted Pieper’s early departure as another expression of disrespect. They complained that they were not officially received, and that German officials did not take part in a Sep. 28 panel discussion organized by an alliance of German NGOs.

“We came here to extend our hand to the German government,” said Ueriuka Festus Tjikuua from the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Council for Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide. “But our hand was rejected.”

Herero Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako, a fervent voice for an official apology and the establishment of a reparation fund, said in his speech at the ceremony in the Charité that “now we are here and you could apologies,” while deploring that the Germans were avoiding the word genocide.

The organizers of the ceremony gave a clear indication that they were not overly pleased with his one hour long summary of Germany’s past in Namibia: his microphone was disconnected.

The people of Namibia have experienced “a further betrayal of the Herero and Nama by Germany,” said Krukuro of the Ovaherero Genocide Committee.

The refusal of German governments since Namibia’s independence to engage in dialogue and in a critical reflection of its colonial past and to pay reparations “expresses a continued Nazi attitude towards the legitimate claims of the Namibian people,” he said.

“Germany is in big part responsible for the dire situation of the Herero and Nama in Namibia,” said Hewat Beukes of the Nama Technical Committee, who pointed to continued poverty and social and cultural disintegration suffered by these peoples.

In Beukes’ point of view, the question of reparations is not only a moral issue but a necessity, to avoid a new conflict in Namibia.

“We don’t want a second Zimbabwe,” Freddy U. Nguvauva, an official with Namibia’s ministry of regional and local government and housing, said in reference to the expropriation of land from white farmers by the government of President Robert Mugabe since 2000.

In her speech at the Charité, Pieper underlined that civil society in Germany is engaged in a critical review of the country’s colonial history.

At the end of the ceremony, civil society groups did what the Herero and Nama people wanted the German government to do: Judith Strohm from AfricAvenir International apologized for the “German genocide against the Herero and Nama,” on behalf of the alliance of NGOs that organized the Sep. 28 panel discussion.

“The German government uses the term ‘regret’ instead of ‘apologies’. One ‘regrets’ a minor crime, but genocide is the worst of all crimes – a crime against humanity,” said Yonas Endrias, who is a spokesperson for the NGO alliance. “But at the end it’s all about reparation; that is, repairing the damage and redressing injustice – restorative justice to be offered by the Germans immediately, as justice delayed is justice denied.”


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