The Genocide – Will Namibian bones haunt Germans forever?
'Any Herero found within the German borders, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I no longer receive women or children. I will drive them back to their people or order them to be shot. These are my words to the Herero people.' – The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.
Extermination Order by the German commander, General Lothar von Trotha. (Source: Wikipedia)
Contrary to the opinion of some, the recent return of Namibian human remains by Germany was not the beginning of the end of the issue and definitely not the end of the question.
There are far too many important issues that have not yet been settled or dealt with in such a way as to prepare the way for an eventual termination of demands. German officialdom has not shown itself prepared or willing to render adequate apology for the evil acts of the notorious German colonial troops against the Herero and the Nama in what has been described as the first genocide of the 20th century, an epoch to be distinguished by several genocides. Above all, the German state has not yet accepted the need to pay compensation for the incalculable damage and suffering inflicted on the Herero and Nama, including the destruction of their cattle and other property as well as for unpaid labour.
Remembrance of Von Trotha’s command to annihilate the Herero and Nama does not seem to indicate to the German government a more sensitive approach to the whole matter and to meet the Namibian delegation with the highest representation of the German state. The whole matter of returning Namibian human remains was dealt with as normal business with a junior minister receiving the descendants of the massacred nations. The Secretary of State even left before the Namibian delegation had made its statement. The official German conduct was a model of incivility. What makes some of us very sad is that the German government knows the right thing to do. It has done it for victims and descendants of victims of Nazi oppression but these were not Africans. One can only surmise that the aversion against Africans and the contempt for African peoples are still so strong and embedded that the German government cannot bring itself to do for Namibians what it has done for others. The German NGOs had proposed more sensitive approaches.
The German Left Party and other members of the German parliament took up recently the issue of Namibian human remains and asked the German Federal Government certain pertinent questions and the government provided its answers. We do not intend to repeat here the basic arguments and comments on the government’s approach to this matter. We highlight a few points we found significant in this exchange of view between the German government and the questioners. In the text of both the government and the questioners, the word ‘ownership’ is used. We believe in this context, the concept of ‘ownership’ is not appropriate insofar as one cannot own a person, his or her body or the human remains. One could have in his control human remains. We have, however, kept the word ‘owner’ in order not to change too much the original texts and their translations.
1. The questioners suspected the German government of wanting to shirk its responsibility in the matter of the Namibian human remains by transferring the remains to other institutions (over which it has no direct control) so that in future demanders of restitution will be directed to address their requests to those institutions. The Federal Government was directly asked to confirm that ‘part of the collections of human remains from former German colonies and other overseas territories previously held by the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité has, since 2011 been transferred to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation(SPK), in which the Federal Government has a major say that the objects would be under federal ‘ownership’. The Government’s answer is that the humans collection at the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charite Hospital is currently being managed by the Museum of Prehistory and Early History (MVF), part of the National Museums in Berlin (SMB) to protect the remains from decay. Efforts were being made to find a ‘solution that would ensure that the collection is appropriately housed and curated. There is no firm evidence at present that the collection consists of or contains any human remains obtained or acquired in an ethically problematical manner in former German colonies or overseas territories’.
The German government seems to be saying that in the absence of direct and concrete proof, it must be assumed that the human remains at the Charité that have now been transferred to Museum of Prehistory and Early history, have not been acquired in an unethical manner from the colonies. But given German history in the matter of acquisition of human remains, it would seem to us that there should be a presumption that unless it can be established that human remains have been acquired from elsewhere, that the remains were acquired from the German colonies. We recall the enthusiasm of academics such as Felix von Luschan for human remains. There were also the various dubious ‘scientific’ experiments by people such as the notorious Dr Ernst Fischer on Namibians and others.
2. Asked why the SPK has not assumed ‘ownership’ of the Charite Hospitals collection of human remains from Namibia and Australia as well, the government answered that the Charité has a responsibility for investigating human remains now known to be ethically problematic. “The human remains originating in the Republic of Namibia and Australia are not, and have never been, available for management by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation(SPK).”
3. To the question as to what extent the Federal Government has informed countries and peoples of origin of the remains and the German public that part of the ‘ownership’ of collections of the Charité have been transferred to the SPK, and that henceforth demands for restitution can be addressed directly to the government, the government’s answer was simple: “The Museum of Prehistory and Early History (MVF) and the National Museums in Berlin (SMB) are both part of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK.” This is a very surprising answer.
One would have thought that the government has a duty to inform the German public on matters which had been intensively discussed among the German public and media. Clearly, peoples and countries where the human remains came from or could have come from deserve as a matter of respect to be informed when human remains are being transferred from one place to another. There seems to be here again a lack of sensitivity.
4. To the related question why the German public and peoples and countries of origin were not informed about the transfers, the government answered as follows. “To the Federal Government’s knowledge, the part of the Charité Hospital’s collection currently being managed by the MVF does not contain any human remains which have been the subject of restitution claims by foreign countries.” Once more, we have a very surprising answer that avoids addressing the question. Whether certain foreign states have claims or not, the duty of informing the German public and foreign states about changes in competence, structures or locations of institutions dealing with human remains exists independently.
5. Asked whether the government is planning to transfer the skulls that presumably came from Namibia to the SPK and hence Federal ‘ownership’ upon completion of the procedures to determine provenance currently under way at the Charité Hospital and at the University of Freiburg and whether the government would hand them over in a dignified way, that is, they would be presented by a high-ranking government representative to the Republic of Namibia and the descendants of the victims of the German war of extermination, the government answered as follows: “As far as the government is aware, the SPK has no plans to acquire the human remains from the Charité Hospital or from the University of Freiburg collections. Handovers should always take place in a dignified manner, irrespective of the institution on the German side that is considered as ‘owner’. The government contests the version of the handover ceremony of the remains on 30 September 2011.”
What should be noticed here is that the government avoids addressing itself to a very salient point in the question, which is also important for the Namibians, that is, that the remains are handed over by a high-ranking representative of the German state, Chancellor or Head of State. After all, the war of extermination and the transfer of the remains were all done in the name of the German state or the Kaiser. An appropriate and dignified return of remains can only be done by a senior representative of the German State. That the government’s answer does not touch upon this sensitive issue shows that the government has not understood the issue or is not willing to resolve it. Future conflicts on this point are pre-programmed.
6. Questioned about the current plans for the SPK’s collection of human remains, the government gave an answer that should be carefully noted: “The collection should in future be managed by an institution with archaeological, ethnological and, above all, anthropological expertise the aim being to transfer the items currently held by the MVF to an institution outside the SPK.” There were no plans to transfer the remains to a private institution. This answer indicates clearly that the government is seeking to transfer the question of restitution of human remains to Namibia and elsewhere to an institution not directly under the control of the Federal Government. This would allow the Federal Government to avoid the question of an apology and the handing over by a high official of the government. The remains would be handed over by a representative of the institution where they are held. The issue of compensation could also be easily avoided. This would be similar to the handing over on 30 September 2011. The Federal Government would appear as a third party, as mediator, but not as directly involved.
We must say here that if it is thought that by transferring the human remains to an institution outside the government or over which the government appears to have no direct control, one could thus avoid the obligations of the German State or reduce them, then this is an illusion. This will only prolong the controversies surrounding the human remains. As far as international law is concerned, there is here only one entity that bears responsibility: the German state. It is the subject of international law and bears rights and duties. The various institutions and the regional states, ‘Länder’, are not the bearers of the obligations and duties of Germany under international law.
7. Asked about progress that has been made since 2011 on researching the provenance of collections of human remains from Namibia, the government gave again a surprising answer:
“Due to the division of competences between the Federation and the Länder (regions) and the diversified management structures, there is neither a comprehensive index of the items in question, nor does the Federal Government have a complete overview of progress on provenance research. Since 2011, the University of Freiburg – currently the only institution of relevance in this context – has announced the conclusion of its investigations and has proposed the return of 14 skulls to the Namibian Government. Berlin’s Charité Hospital is expected to conclude its DFG-funded ‘Human Remains Project’ by the end of the year and will offer further skulls originating in Namibia for repatriation. The Federal Government is also aware that the Embassy of the Republic of Namibia is negotiating with other institutions which have not yet ‘gone public’ on this issue.”
It is hard to believe that Germany does not have a complete index of human remains and that the Federal Government does not have an overview of progress on provenance research. Germany has an excellent reputation for efficiency and German officials have been known to keep statistics under circumstances that could only be mildly described as difficult. In the developing countries, we are used to the absence of necessary statistics but to read that one of the wealthiest and most developed states in the Western world also has such a lack of statistics amazed us. Equally surprising is to read that only one institution, University of Freiburg, is actively undertaking provenance research and has concluded its investigations and has proposed the return of 14 skulls to Namibia. Is that all there is in terms of numbers regarding Namibian human remains? Berlin’s Charité has concluded its researches and would propose returning further skulls to Namibia. But how many will the Charité propose?
Hopefully, the number of 14 mentioned by the government is not suggesting that there are not many Namibian human remains in Germany. The many massacres carried out in Namibia must have yielded a great number of human remains. In any case, the fascination that human remains seem to exercise would also suggest a greater number when supply is easily available.
The Federal Government also states that the Embassy of the Republic of Namibia is negotiating with certain institution on this matter. Which institutions and what are they negotiating?
8. To the question how the Federal Government intends to mediate with private institutions that are not very responsive to demands for repatriation, the government answered that it will appeal to the sense of responsibility of those institutions: “it is willing to mediate in disputes between relevant institutions and claimants if this is desired by the stakeholders. The Federal Government does not, however, have any means of legally obliging private institutions to conduct provenance research or to hand over human remains”.
This seems to us not entirely free of questions. As we have already stated, as far as international law is concerned, the Federal Government is responsible for fulfilling Germany’s obligations at the international level. Most of the human remains from Namibia resulted from the cruel wars of extermination of the German colonial troops who acted in the name of the State or Kaiser. Clearly, responsibility for these acts, like many of the Nazi atrocities, falls on the Federal Government. So how can the same Federal Government act as mediator between claimants and other institutions? If the Federal Government does not have any means of exerting pressure on private institution, one must ask if the government has sought to be given this necessary means for fulfilling its international obligations.
9. Regarding plans for future repatriations, the Federal Government answered that the Namibian Government had not adopted any specific decisions on further repatriation of human remains. Both governments agree that such repatriations should be in a dignified manner.
What comes out of the answers of the Federal Government is a desire to keep the issues of human remains as far as possible away from the government or government institutions. There is no manifestation that the government is taking a pro-active stance to have these issues solved. On the contrary, one has the impression that the governments would like these demands end as soon as possible through difficulties for the claimants such as many institutions involved and no one governmental body to address. The government seems to be waiting for Namibian Government initiatives before it acts and does not feel any obligation, on its part to take the initiative to hasten the process of repatriation. We believe both the Namibian and the German governments have obligations in this matter and one government cannot defend its lack of initiative by pointing out that the other government is also not taking any active steps.
Coming from a part of the world where governments and governmental institutions do not always answer in detail such questions as the Left Party and some Members of Parliament asked the German Federal Government, we were impressed that both sides tried to deal with the matter in some detail even if not all answers were completely satisfactory.
One point is clear: this is not the last time the German Government will have to deal with the subject matter. The issues involved will not simply disappear as some may wish so long as adequate compensation has not been provided and a sincere apology expressed by a higher official of the Federal Government, President or the Chancellor. Is this too much of a price to pay for the damages and losses caused by the German extermination wars against the Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908 in the former German colony of South-West Africa, now Namibia?
“The genocide in German South-West Africa is also significant as a prelude to the Holocaust. One need only consider notions such as concentration camps and genocide to relate these events to the mass crimes committed during the Third Reich. Although one must beware of making precipitate comparisons, it cannot be denied that there are structural similarities between the genocide committed on the Herero and Nama and the Holocaust, which deserve further reflection. As less than 40 years elapse between the first and the second genocides carried out by Germans, the lack of a link would be more surprising that its existence.” – Excerpted from Pambazuka News