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Clarifying German colonial-era atrocities in Tanzania

Martina Schwikowski
March 22, 2023

The process of coming to terms with German colonial-era crimes in Tanzania is intended to strengthen relations. The two countries are also in talks on reparations.

A group of men and women standing around a table
A meeting of German and Tanzanian officials in BerlinImage: Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss

Activists and historians have helped to keep the memory of German colonialism alive over the past 100 years. Their debates about restitution and reparations for colonial injustices have put the issue onto the political agenda in countries such as Namibia. .

Tanzania, once part of German East Africa and the scene of colonial-era atrocities, had been relatively quiet — until now.

'It is by no means too late'

Politicians in the two countries want to work towards clarifying and making right on the events of the past. The return of the human remains of countless colonial war victims to Tanzania is on the cards. These are still stored in German museums, along with cultural objects — so-called looted art.

Samia Suluhu Hassan, Katja Keul and Regine Hess
Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan received Germany's Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Katja Keul (middle) and its Ambassador to Tanzania Regine Hess in 2022Image: Tanzania Statehouse

"It is by no means too late for this project," Tanzanian historian Philemon Mtoi said. "The time is right to reconnect, to reconcile the people and to build a common future."

Germany should be careful not to "destroy the relationships that existed in Tanzania even after colonization," Mtoi told DW.

Moi says Germany's leaders should approach the task critically and think carefully about the way they bring back objects. Their gestures should be authentic, coming "from the bottom of their hearts." In this way, he said Germany can honestly ensure that the past is remembered.

The process of coming to terms with the atrocities committed during the German colonial period in Tanzania is still in its infancy. But German actors are also urging haste.

"What happened is not sufficiently known, both in Tanzania and in Germany," Katja Keul, Germany's Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, told DW.

Grave crimes in Tanzania

Several uprisings were brutally suppressed at the time of German colonial rule. Particularly devastating were the developments surrounding the Maji-Maji Rebellion of 1905-1907. Historians estimate that as many as 300,000 people were killed in east Africa. Countless skulls and bones were subsequently taken to Germany.

A man and a woman standing over cultural artifacts
The Head of Germany's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation Hermann Parzinger and National Museum of Namibia Director Esther Moombolah-/Goagoses Image: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

The German Foreign Office and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin want the remains are to be returned to Tanzania or buried in an appropriate place. The foundation took over the large collection of human remains from the Charité Medical History Museum in 2011, according to its president, Hermann Parzinger.

The remains had been looted from village cemeteries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly to conduct anthropological research in Germany,

"This is grave destruction, grave robbery, which would have been punishable here in Germany, then as now," Parzinger told DW.

A picture of Chief Mwakwa
The skull of the Tanzanian resistance fighter Chief Mkwawa was traced to the German city of Bremen in the 1950sImage: Carola Frentzen/dpa/picture alliance

A reparations option

The entire inventory of looted human remains should now be returned, said Parzinger. There was an obligation to gather information in advance. in order to determine the exact origin of the bones as precisely as possible. Some information was held in archives in East African countries, he said.

"We already sent the information to the countries concerned of the inventory of 1,200 skulls when the project was completed two or three years ago. About 250 are from Tanzania, around 900 from Rwanda and 35 from Kenya," Parzinger told DW.

Tanzania is also increasing pressure on the German government to take responsibility for German colonial-era atrocities in East Africa.

In early 2020, Tanzania's ambassador to Berlin, Abdallah Possi, called on the German government to "negotiate reparations" for these crimes.

The Tanzanian government is currently preparing to work jointly with the German government and has established a special committee for this purpose, according to Said Othman Yakubu, Permanent Secretary in Tanzania's Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports.

"The committee is still in the works," Yakubu says. "The issue of reparations is one of the items on the table." 

Africa's stolen treasures: Time to give them back?

Last exhibitions before restitution

Historian Mtoi said reparations alone can't translate to peace and healing in a society. He warned that the government, politicians and descendents of the victims should not see it as a "golden moment to gain an economic advantage."

Rather, he said, they should respect the fact that their history cannot be offset with material gain, but should be restored and honored - no matter what Africans and Tanzanians went through under the German government of the time.

The joint reappraisal of the history would direct the view into the future and derive a more intensive relationship from it, Keul believes.

But at the moment, there is still a lot that is very much in the dark as far as Tanzania is concerned, she told DW: "That means that on the other side, too, we first have to clarify what exactly our needs are and how we can come together." 

A carved statute covered in cowrie shells
Germany has given the green light for the return of the Ngonnso figure to Cameroon, a former colony of the German EmpireImage: Okach George/DW

In Berlin's Humboldt Forum, an exhibition in September will take a critical look at the Tanzania collection. The objects from the Maji-Maji Rebellion are then expected to be shown in 2024 and subsequently returned to Tanzania.

Verena Greb, Sudi Mnette and Rosalia Romaniec conributed to this article.

Edited by Benita van Eyssen