August 18, 2008

The return of Namibian Skulls by Germany

Posted at 12:45 pm in Similar cases

Kwame Opoku writes about the return of human remains to Africa from Germany & how the process is frustrated by the need for official requests to be made in the correct way.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article | Sun, 17 Aug 2008

“I, the great general of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people… All Hereros must leave this land… Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall no longer receive any women or children; I will drive them back to their people. I will shoot them. This is my decision for the Herero people.” (The German commander General von Trotha)

We have had the occasion to refer to the problem of the thousands of African human remains that are still in European museums many decades after independence and the duty to repatriate them on dignified terms and conditions. *

As indicated in the report below, the Germans have stated their willingness to return 47 Namibian skulls. However, the Germans are insisting on an official request from the Namibian government. The Namibian Prime Minister, Nahas Angula, has rightly responded that when the Germans were taking away those skulls they did not ask anybody for permission.

We have established in an earlier article that there is no requirement for a formal demand. There are various reasons for this. In most cases, it is only the holder of the illegal objects or human remains who has knowledge about the existence, the numbers, the location, the physical condition and the history of the objects. Often, only the holder can tell whether these objects can travel and under what condition.

In this case of 47 skulls, the German authorities, as holders of the objects, should contact the Namibian authorities, not through the media but through a note to the Head of State, Head of Government or the Foreign Minister. The note should contain detailed information about the existence, the location, numbers and their full history. They should indicate also when and how they wish to deliver them and request the name and address of the officials in Namibia responsible for the recovery and reception of such items.

If it is the National Heritage Council that is responsible, it should immediately contact the German authorities once the Council has been informed by the Namibian government of the German note and the Government has communicated to the Germans that the Council is the responsible authority.

The National Heritage Council should work out the terms and conditions for the reception of the skulls. They should establish with the Germans the identity of the individuals whose skulls are to be returned. The Germans have been known, since the days of Felix von Luschan who was keen on such skulls and bones, for keeping exact records.

The National Heritage Council should work out with the Germans compensation for the family and relatives of the individuals concerned. Compensation should take into account the long period that has elapsed, the loss of earnings, pain and suffering and moral damages for the anguish and trauma of the relatives. The costs of transport from Germany to Windhoek and to the place of burial as well as burial costs – coffin, religious service etc – must be borne by the Germans.

Since this is probable the first time that such a transfer is being made on a large scale, the procedures and all relevant information should be properly documented and kept for future cases since the number of Namibian bones and skulls in the German museums runs into thousands. There are surely Namibian bones, not only in the Medical History Museum at the Charité Hospital, Berlin as in the present case but also in the Natural History Museum in Berlin (sent there from the Ethnology Museum, Berlin) and in the Natural History Museum, Vienna with which Felix von Luschan had very good relations. Indeed, more will be discovered in all the German University Medical Schools and Natural History Museums as well as in the Ethnology Museums. Just think of Berlin,Bonn,Bremen,Cologne,Dresden,Frankfurt,Freiburg,Hamburg,Heidelberg,Leipzig,Marburg,Nurenberg, Rostock and other German cities.
It goes without saying that the skulls of the individuals who lost their lives during the German occupation of Namibia should be given a proper burial.

It should be borne in mind that the transfer of the skulls and their burial are part of a long process, a painful healing process concerning the German-Namibian relations that almost always involved untold pain and suffering. The Germans should bear in mind their decisive role and seek to make amends wherever possible.

As Peter Katjavivi, former Namibian Ambassador to Germany is reported to have said, this is a very sensitive matter and no controversy should be created about the repatriation. It is also a historical matter which reflects the troubled relations between the colonialists and Africans.

Kwame Opoku, 16 August 2008.

“Namibian Bones in European Museums. How Long are the Dead to Remain Unburied? Genocide with Impunity”.;
“Why do European Museums Have so much trouble with African Bones?”

Germans Insist on ‘Request’ for Skulls
Friday, 15th of August 2008
By Kuvee Kangueehi


The repatriation of 47 Namibian skulls that are in a German museum, appears to be in limbo after the Acting German Ambassador to Namibia, Ute Koenig, yesterday reiterated her country’s position that they cannot return the skulls without an official request from the
Namibian Government.

Her comments yesterday follow an earlier public statement by Prime Minister Nahas Angula that Namibia will not make the official request because when the Germans took the skulls of Namibians for research, they did not get permission from Namibians.

Koenig told New Era yesterday that if nobody wants the skulls, Germany cannot return them.

“When we return the skulls, somebody must accept them and without an official request, we do not know whom to give them to.”

Koenig said the repatriation process cannot be handled single-handedly and the cooperation of the Namibian authorities is needed in this regard.

The acting ambassador noted that she has forwarded media reports in the country to Germany and has not received an official response.

Earlier Angula said that it would be insensitive of the German government to expect a request from the Namibian Government.

However, former Namibian Ambassador to Germany, Professor Peter Katjavivi, says a controversy should not be created around the repatriation of skulls because it is a very sensitive issue.

He notes that the National Heritage Council is the appropriate body to deal with the repatriation of the skulls and thus the director of the council should meet with the board of the council to map the way forward.

Katjavivi, as a former chairperson of the Board of the National Heritage Council, advised the council that once it starts the process, it should not operate in a vacuum and should consult affected communities as broadly as possible.

“The council should be mandated by the Government to oversee the process and ensure that these Namibians are given a dignified burial.”

Information emerged earlier this year that there are 47 skulls that are stored at the Medical History Museum at the Charite Hospital in Berlin.

The skulls belong to Namibians who lived in the southern part of the country and at Swakopmund.

It is suspected that the skulls from the southern part of the country belong to the Nama-speaking people, while the skulls from Swakopmund are from Hereros, Damaras and Namas as well.

The Herero people began an uprising against the German colonial rulers in January 1904 with warriors – incensed by German settlers stealing their land, cattle and women massacring about 200 German civilians over several days.
The German colonial rulers responded ruthlessly, defeating the Herero in a decisive battle northeast of Windhoek later that year.

This was followed by the notorious “extermination order” of General Lothar von Trotha, under the direct command of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin.

The figures for the total Herero population alive at the time ranged from 50 000 to 80 000 and only 15 000 of them survived the German extermination campaign.
NEW ERA, 15TH August 2008.

Source: Kwame Opoku, Dr.

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