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How Long Must Africans Still Wait To Be Able To Bury Their Dead From Racist German Colonialism?

German soldiers loading human skulls and bones of massacred Hereros into a casket for shipping to German universities, especially, Berlin
German soldiers loading human skulls and bones of massacred Hereros into a casket for shipping to German universities, especially, Berlin

‘’ Luschan also asked a Lieutenant Ralf Zürn, stationed in Okahandja, South-West Africa, just after the massacre of the Hereros by the German colonialists begun: “If you are aware of any possible way in which we might acquire a larger number of Herero skulls…” The lieutenant responded that this would be possible “since in the concentration camps taking and preserving the skulls of Herero prisoners of war will be more readily possible than in the country, where there is always a danger of offending the ritual feelings of the natives”. (1)

Postcard indicating who the addresses of the box were: German museums and universitiesPostcard indicating who the addresses of the box were: German museums and universities

We publish below a press release from a German NGO, Berlin Postcolonial on the announcement by German authorities to start preparing African human remains for repatriation.

We were surprised to read that despite all the discussions on human remains from the racist German colonial empire, it is now that the German authorities have announced their intention of starting in October 2017, to start preparations on human remains taken from the German colonies - today’s Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi - in 1885-1918. Readers may recall that we have expressed our views on several aspects of the issue of human remains from German colonies.(2)

We had been under the impression that since the disgraceful incident on 28 September 2011 in which a German Foreign Office official, Cornelia Pieper, walked out of a ceremony of handing over skulls before the Namibian delegation had made a speech, the German authorities had been busy with the issue. Can we now have any confidence that this time they are really working on the issue? Or are they simply playing to gain time?

What worries me more are some of the declarations that accompanied the statement of intention to start work on the issue.

In a press release dated 02.08.2017, the president of the Prussian Foundation for Culture (SPK), Herman Parzinger stated: ‘In order to be able to decide, how we deal with the rest of the human remains, we must know exactly where they come from, especially whether they result from an unjust context’. (Unrechtkontext)

What the President of the Prussian Foundation for Culture is saying is that they decide whether the human remains were legally acquired or not. A very bold and amazing statement. The German institution is party to a dispute relating to whether human remains were legally acquired or not and it boldly constitutes itself as judge for determining an issue in which his Foundation is interested.

Given the known facts about German colonialism, the racist pseudo-scientific research of Dr. Erich Fischer and co, supported by Felix von Luschan and others, one is surprised that in 2017 a German official could speculate that some African human remains could have been acquired under legal circumstances. We can assure Parzinger that there could have been no legal situation in which African human remains could have been legally acquired under German colonial rule. German ethnologists could tell him about the values Africans attach to human remains. He should also be informed that the whole German colonial project and especially the attempt to acquire human remains was in an ‘Unrechtcontext’. Many laws in German colonies did not even conform to internal German forms and procedures.

The evil Dr.Eugen Fischer whose pseudo-scientific theories of racial purity were practised on Namibians at his desk with photos of African women. The evil Dr.Eugen Fischer whose pseudo-scientific theories of racial purity were practised on Namibians at his desk with photos of African women.

One must go from the presumption that African remains in Germany were illegally acquired unless there a clear evidence to the contrary.

The press release from the Prussian Foundation writes about there being about thousand human remains from the former German East African colonies. Our information about German rule leads us to believe there are thousands and not thousand.

Even more worrying are the statements from the director of the Pilot Project that is going to research the provenance of the human remains, Dr. Bernhard Heeb. In a press release dated 02.08.2017, he states that the Luschan Collection of Skulls amounted at the beginning to some 6.300 skulls but now are almost 5.500. Where have the 800 skulls gone to? The scholar states that’ ‘we do not know how old they are, where they came from, A great part came from Africa and the Pacific Region’. He adds that on the basis of this historical background, the research of their provenance, at least for the almost 1.000 skulls from East Africa, become necessary. Is there here an attempt to throw the African human remains into a large pool of human remains that makes it theoretically difficult to state clearly their origin? In any case, the figure of 1.000 is clearly an understatement. Taking into account all the German massacres against Africans, and remembering that Dr. Heeb himself has said Felix Luschan collected about 6.300, surely the total collection of African skulls in Germany by the end of the 20th century must be estimated in tens of thousands.

Germans have been known for their record keeping and this talent or habit has been attested even in most unbelievable circumstances. Are Dr. Heeb and others now trying to make us believe that Felix Luschan and others interested in human skulls did not keep any records of how many skulls they received, from whom, from where and on what dates? Later on in the same interview Dr. Heeb states that there are in foreign archives relevant documentation. For example, there are in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, documentation of the private collection of Luschan.

To the question for what purposes one needs to-day these skulls, and why they cannot simply be returned, Dr Heeb answered that they could be used for scientific research, they could be used in researching into old diseases such as malaria and resistance thereto. When it is found that the skulls were acquired in an unjust context (Unrechtcontext ) then they will have to be returned.

Asked what would be an unjust context (Unrechtkontext) ,Dr.Heeb replied that there were cases, for example, where the colonial masters carried on summary executions. That would be an illegal context but as far as he knew there was no such case in the Luschan Collection. How can the expert be so sure? It would be interesting to know what opinion Dr. Heeb has of the notorious order from Lothar von Trotha:

"I, the great general of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people. The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears and other parts of the bodies of wounded soldiers, and now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people: anyone who hands over one of the chiefs to one of our stations as prisoner shall receive 1,000 marks and whoever delivers Samuel Maharero will receive 5,000 marks. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the people refuse to do so, I shall force them with the Great Rohr [cannon]. 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. ( 3)

Would Parzinger and Heeb be looking for ‘Unrechtkontext’ under such command or presume, as we are suggesting, that all such transfers of human remains from colonial Africa to Germany were in an ‘Unrechtkontext’.

When asked why his institute is only now beginning with the provenance research even though the collection had been with the Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte since 2011, Dr. Heeb said they had been cleaning and taking conservatory measures as regards the skulls when they took them over. They must have a lot of skulls if it took from 2011 to 2017 to clean them.

Questioned about whether there have been any claims for restitution, Dr. Heeb said there had been none. This surprised me since I thought the whole issue came up since there were many claims for restitution. So, what have all the discussions and protests in the last years been about? It appears the German authorities are playing the same games with restitution of human remains as they have been playing with cultural artefacts. The more claims there are, the more they deny there have been any claims.

We expect the German authorities to do quickly what they should have done long ago:

Return African human remains to their countries of origin;

Render full and complete apologies to the peoples concerned;

Pay for the transport and costs of burial for the remains;

Compensate the peoples concerned for the pain and suffering of waiting for so long to bury their ancestors according to tradition.

We find it remarkable that Germans are having to deal with such issues whilst they are trying to improve their image with expensive prestigious projects such as the Humboldt Forum which should be opening soon. Do they relish to recall the very dark chapters of their history?

Perhaps a little more sensitivity towards those they have in past severely mistreated would help.

1.Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (2001) p.245.

2. K. Opoku, Bones do not die: Germans to return Namibian skulls...

Return of stolen skulls by Germany to Namibia: Closure of a horrible ...

Have Germans finally acknowledged the ... - Pambazuka News ..

Namibian bones in European museums – Genocide with impunity ...

For detailed bibliography of German colonial collection of skulls, see: Aussereuropäische anthropologische Schädelsammlungen in Freiburg und Deutschland, The long history of fascination with skulls up to present day is well demonstrated in an exhibition in the Reiss-Engelheim Museum, Mannheim, entitled‚ Schädelkult - Kopf und Schädel in der Kulturgeschichte des Menschen’. The exhibition catalogue published by the museum in 2011 gives an idea of how widespread is the availability of skulls in Germany. Some 32 institutions lent their skulls for the exhibition. These institutions are located in Bad Buchau, Bad Säckingen, Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt am Main, Freiburg i.Brisgau, Giessen, Hamburg, Hannover, Heidelberg, Kassel, Konstanz, Koblenz, Kõln, Kranenburg, Landshut, Mettmann, Müllenbach (bei Bayern), München, Regensburg, Speyer, Stuttgart, Tübingen, Neu-Ulm, and Weimar.

3.Lothar von Trotha,;

Völkermord an den Nama und Herero in Deutsch-Südwestafrika ab 1904. Dokumentation gegen das Vergessen.

Jan-Bart Gewald, ‘Herero Heroes’, James Currey, Oxford, and Ohio University Press, 1999; also, The Great General of the Kaiser.

Kwame Opoku.
Berlin Postkolonial e.V.

All human remains from colonized countries must be prepared for repatriation

Non-government organization Berlin Postkolonial welcomes the decision of the state-funded Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage (SPK) to start provenence research on the more than 1,000 human remains taken for racist researches to Berlin during Germany’s colonial rule in today’s Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi, 1885-1918.

We see this decision as a result of our long-term protests against further research on the victims of European and German colonialism.

At the same time we want to emphasize:

  1. that not only the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage but also the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory (Rudolf-Virchow Collection) is in possession of thousands of human remains from colonized countries
  2. That both institutions possess numerous human remains from other regions colonized by Germany and Europe

We call on both institutions to check the provenance of their anthropological collections, to inform the source communities and to offer the repatriation of human remains shipped to Germany.

Tanzanian activist Mnyaka Sururu Mboro from Berlin Postkolonial:

“I can hardly believe that the remains of our ancestors are now to be returned. The Foundation has not been active for more than five years despite various promises. Should it come to a repatriation I can only hope that the German government will not return them without an apology. We have never ceased to remember colonialism and the injustice done to our ancestors as well as to ourselves.”

Phone Mnyaka Sururu Mboro: 0160 117 4528
Office: buero(at), 01799 100 976

Conference on 2017/10/14-15: “Prussian Colonial Heritage – Sacred Objects and Human Remains”, Centre Francais Berlin, Müllerstra.e 74, 13349 Berlin

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2017

This author has authored 238 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: KwameOpoku

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